The parent … as a gardener ?

Tuesday 26 July 2022

Gracious me gardeners, I need your help!

About 6 weeks ago, a pupil bought me this beautiful rose, accompanied by an utterly delightful card.

It’s called Lovely Lady,” she beamed, “because you are a lovely lady!”

Well, look what has happened to the poor thing since I brought it home and planted it in the garden!

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Help! What to do? I’ve watered. I’ve fed. I’ve sprayed. But the once-lovely lady continues to droop. Every morning and every night, I have to face that desperate, bowed stem and … I feel dreadful.

Is the rose simply a reflection of me?‘ I ponder in a mad moment, ‘devoid of all energy and drive and just dragging myself towards the end of term?’

Or.. am I just a hopeless gardener?

Probably the latter, which would not be so bad, but for the fact that, in a similar vein to my pupil, several writers find strong parallels between gardening and parenting.

Children’s author, Katherine Halligan, in her post Why Parenting Why is a Lot Like Gardening, describes her transition into life with a family as follows,

As I gave up all notion of control and surrendered to the (happy!) chaos, I discovered I had probably been wrong all along. Nature has its own agenda, just like children do. And children, like plants, tend to thrive in spite of everything I do wrong.

Much, as ‘Lovely Lady’ is clearly not in the thriving category at the moment, I do enjoy the rest of Katherine’s article. The notion of learning on the job and just ‘jumping in at the deep end’ make pretty reassuring reading for any parent (or gardener.)

Mostly I simply muddle along, going on instinct, hoping that weather and circumstance will favour my wild guesses …”

And it is a version of the idea of working with, rather than trying to control the complexities of life, that highlights the parent’s role as a gardener for child psychologist Alison Gopnik in, The Gardener and the Carpenter. ‘Which kind of parent are you?’ she challenges us to consider, gardener or carpenter?

The “carpenter” thinks that his or her child can be moulded. “The idea is that if you just do the right things, get the right skills, read the right books, you’re going to be able to shape your child ….”

‘The “gardener,” on the other hand, is less concerned about controlling who the child will become and instead provides a protected space to explore…”

Which one are you? Which one am I?

I decide that I am probably a mix of both and my kids agree. I quite like the idea of the gardener and the carpenter but find them more useful for describing behaviours than people. Hence in some situations, I approach things as a ‘moulder’ and in others, as a supportive of the ‘explorer’. Hey it is an analogy after all. At least I hope so, because if not, given my lack of skill in either domain, things don’t look too rosy for my offspring!

Interesting as the reading is, parenting is not my problem on this occasion… gardening is. And none of this solves the dilemma of wilting ‘Lovely Lady’. As far as I can see, my only options now are, pruning, supporting with bamboo and … a miracle?

Meanwhile, all suggestions welcome!

The cupboard was bare…

Monday 18 July 2021

Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard, To fetch her poor dog a bone. But when she got there the cupboard was bare, And so the poor dog had none.

Well, I may not have a dog but, when you’re down to a jar of piccalilli, a few tired old carrots and half a cucumber, it’s time to admit that you just cannot put off the supermarket shop any longer!

Gosh it has been a busy few weeks!

Look, I am a fan of ‘busy‘ and this particular brand-of-frantic starts brilliantly because it offers, in large part, ‘freedom from routine’ for me; always a winner. Some great playing, in big concerts and smaller groups. Several great nights out. Even a stay-away for work.

As an added bonus it is all wrapped up in a bow of lovely weather! Our northern lands, bathed (until today’s Saharan blast) in pleasant sunshine, providing the perfect setting for social drinks, afternoon strolls and basking away the occasional hangover!

Bliss and, to quote Gingerbread, the national single parent charity, just the tonic for the well-being of any busy parent,

Looking after the needs of your family can take all of your time and energy. Try to get some time to yourself every now and again to recharge your batteries. All busy parents need some adult time away from children, housework and chores

Is it just me however, or possibly a parental pitfall, but does there always come a point when ‘busy‘ tips into ‘just too busy‘? The scales certainly threaten to overbalance for me this weekend. A crammed calendar of activities on top of a full time job plus offspring casting me as the font of knowledge on: flat hunting, catching holiday flights and late night party transportation does finally frazzle my mind to the point where I simply need to stop and sit in a darkened room for a few hours!

And, in the end, as usual it is the daily grind of running a household which finally breaks me…

Yes, those bare cupboards. Not, I must confess the household chores! Keep it quiet but I have forgotten what they are! With one, sometimes two, university offspring in holiday-time residence, I’ve been very spoiled. They bob in and out, but even so have manged most of the: cooking, cleaning and even ironing, throughout June and July. And, used to surviving on a students grant, those girls are resourceful; eking a meal out of the most paltry of ingredients. But they are not magicians and, as I open the fridge today, I have to concede that enough is enough, we need food!

I mean piccalilli … picc-a-friggin’- lill! Surely a new (nutritional) low point !

So, as I am the only car driver, shattered or not, it is time for me to haul my weary limbs off the sofa and down to those shops! Wonder how the tale ended for Old Mother Hubbard ….

Olympic Fever

Monday 26 July 2021

I am due in work at 10am today and am nearly late…because I am glued to the BBC’s Olympic breakfast. Olympic fever is well and truly starting to set in…

For Team GB, it is a fest of good fortune, on a day quickly dubbed as ‘Magic Monday’ by the commentators, with 3 gold medal performances and everyone one of them is a great story. Adam Peaty, a man who carried the weight of the world on his young shoulders, so great was the national expectation, swims to success in the 100m breast-stroke. His relief, his joy, his pride, in becoming the first British swimmer to defend an Olympic title are palpable. By contrast, for Tom Daley partnered by Matty Lee, this first Olympic gold for diving brings a fairy tale ending to a journey that began in 2008 in Beijing when Daley, as a 14 year old athlete was propelled onto the international stage and into the hearts of the nation. Their podium ceremony is incredibly emotional and I am just recovering with my second cuppa of the morning when onto my screens comes the amazing Tom Pidcock. In a jaw dropping performance on the mountain bike, he destroys the rest of the field to take gold. He is cool, controlled and completely assured … until the moment he crosses the line where once again the emotion and tears takes over.

I haven’t even made it our of the house yet and I am completely drained! This festival of sport just brings wave after wave of drama. In terms of the sport, where margins between triumph and heartbreak can be measured in brutal fractions of seconds, or tenths of points, it’s edge of the seat, occasionally, as in Taekwondo, watch behind a cushion, stuff. And with such a plethora of events, this can be relentless.

But, for me, what really distinguishes the Olympic Games from other sporting occasions is the engagement with so many personal stories. So many tales of commitment, so many hours of training, so much sacrifice, so much gratitude for coaches, for friend and for families. Pidcock has won gold weeks after breaking his collar bone. We’ve watched Daley try and try again to become an Olympic champion and the nation knows of the challenges he has faced in and out of the diving pool. In an astonishing interview with his girl friend, we learn that Peaty, the definition of dominance and confidence in the pool, lives a life where ‘every second’ is built around training and sheer hard work. Away from Team GB, the man who wins the roadrace wins Ecuador’s first gold medal for quarter of a century. Anna Kiesenhofer, an amateur rider with a mathematics masters from Cambridge, stuns the world to triumph in the women’s equivalent.

Just incredible.. if utterly exhausting and I am only a few days in! Can I make it through 2 more weeks of tears and cheers? I think I might just be too addicted to stop now…

Talking about running…

Thursday 22 July 2021

Yuk, yuk and triple yuk! My garments are literally sodden with sweat as I return from a short run this morning; my first in nearly 2 weeks. Do I regret choosing one of the hottest days of the year to dig out my running shoes again? Not for a second; my head needed this!

In his book, ‘What I talk about when I talk about running‘, Murakami, observes,

Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that…”

And whilst is would be clearly ludicrous for me to draw many life parallels with an award winning novelist and regular amateur marathon runner, even as a steady 10K jogger this chimes with me. Take this week for example…

Like most teachers, I crawl to the end of the academic year and the long Summer Holiday dawns with me too exhausted to think, feel or do anything, beyond basic auto-pilot mum duties. So for days I do nothing but shopping, washing, taxi-ing … and paying for lots of things. I lounge about. I loaf about. And as for exercise; I shun it completely. I am “too tired to run.” It is “too hot to run.” I need a “break” from my run.

By mid-week, do I feel rested and refreshed? Alas, I do not. I feel smothered in sluggishness and hemmed in by the humdrum. As the main adult in the house, there are more important things I need to be doing; creative tasks; decision making tasks; project planning tasks…but these just seem overwhelming. My head is a muddle and I hover on the edge of gloom and despondency.

So this morning, despite little sleep, a bunged up nose and the searing sun, I haul myself off for a bit of pavement pounding. And I feel instantly better. Settling back into the familiar running rhythms is reassuring. I am out of the house. My route is peaceful and spacious. The brain fog lifts and an order for the day begins to dance into place. By the time I am home, showered and sipping my first coffee, I am filled not only with energy but also enthusiasm for the day ahead.

To be tentatively heading ‘back on track‘, feels a wonderful relief, so I briefly ponder ways to maintain this level of motivation and focus? Should I commit to some exercise goal throughout the Summer? The magnificent Murakami aims to run 6 miles per day to maintain the ‘stamina and endurance’ needed to support his writing? Yikes, that is beyond me! More realistic would be re-vamping my January homage to Ron Hills, of ‘running at least a mile a day’. I sip on my coffee and decide to give myself a few days to decide. In the meantime, I elect to put distances aside and go day-by-day. Today is today and tomorrow, I will go for another morning run…

Oh to be young ….

11 July 2017

At around noon, Prom-dress daughter, three of her friends, assorted luggage …and a mini fridge, set off, in a very small Fiat 500, en route for my mum’s caravan in Wales.

‘Oh to be 18 again!’

Laughter and excitement fill our house as they all assemble. I pop briefly into the lounge, in an attempt to discuss the route, but am waved away with confident flourishes of Google Maps and leave them discussing the far more important issue of what to add to the car playlist! And, as bottles of gin and fizz are cheerfully clanked into the car boot, I realise that now is also not the moment to check if anyone has brought ‘a waterproof‘ or a ‘pair of stout walking boots’.

No this is the glorious age when you are old enough to start breaking away parental supervision, sensible shoes and practical plans, and life can be centred on fun, friendship and freedom. And I don’t feel overly worried or anxious as I wave them off…I just feel envious! My mind wanders back to the halcyon days of my own youth and those early  ‘gal pal’ holidays.

Me, as a teen

My first, aged 16, was also at my parent’s caravan. Ours was an epic journey indeed, involving a National Express coach, a train followed by a steam train, a local bus and then dragging our bulging bags and cases through the caravan park. Once there, I have no idea what we ate and doubt we had a raincoat between us. What I do remember is sunbathing on the beach with a crackly radio permanently set to the ‘Radio 1 Roadshow’, occasional and very tame night-time adventures at the ‘caravan club’, lots and lots of laughter and delightful days drifting by without a care. And that is the feeling I miss, now that I am a grown up.

I say this even after a week when music makes a magical return to my world. The curtain raiser; a trip to the Bridgwater Hall. And here, just as I am sipping on a cheeky white wine spritzer with the opening chords of the overture rising through the auditorium, my phone pings with a request to  play in an actual concert. 

I’ll confess I feel a little stunned at first,  because I am 16 months out of practice. However, I resolve to ‘go for it, slug back a little more alcoholic courage and reply with a ‘yes!’  I spend my week digging out reeds, working on my parts and rediscovering the challenge of scheduling meals, work and life around rehearsals.  And it is great. Great to be making music with others again, great to be part of the noise…but it’s not the same as being 18.

At eighteen, I was touring the wonderful Veneto region with the city Youth Orchestra and don’t recall giving my part, my reeds or any solos a second thought. In truth, I’d struggle to name the programme for a single concert! At that young age, it was all about the friends I roomed with, post-concert drinks, bleary-eyed breakfasts, sunshine and adventure in exciting foreign settings …without a parent in sight. Old enough to taste independence but still too young forthe weight of responsibility. Was it, for the briefest of windows, a golden age?

Who knows, but here’s to a fantastic holiday for my daughter and her lovely friends. Lets face it, after 16 months of pandemic, they all deserve it. Make memories, make it laughter- filled and, above all, make the most of being young….

Who plays a concerto 6 weeks after giving birth?

Tuesday 28 July 2020

Windsor, our trusty Toyota, is driven away for his first set of repair jobs this week and, as a result, we find ourselves stationary for a few days. In many ways, it feels like a flashback to early Lockdown. We paint the bathroom. We redesign the conservatory. We auction old furniture on Ebay; our first ‘non-cot’ bed becomes ‘my own big bed‘ to another child; the kitchen table is signed up for a very glamorous new life at a Night Club in town! There is one difference however, I finally put up a music stand and tootle some oboe notes …

Usually, I’d battle through the parts for my nearest concert. But, as Covid-19 has ruled out all rehearsals since March, I have to dig into my older folders and my past repertoire. And I find The Bach Double Concerto for Oboe and Violin. Oh what memories! This is the first full concerto I ever performed in public and it took place 6 short weeks after Small Boy was born!

If you are an expectant, first-time, musical mum, do not try this! It was utter madness. But Small Boy was not my first child, he was my third. Additionally, in over 3 decades of living at the time, no-one had ever invited me to play a concerto before. It was just too good an opportunity to miss.

I was in the very early, unannounced stages of pregnancy when the unsuspecting conductor offered me the job. I agreed enthusiastically, my outward face a picture of smiles and assurance. On the inside, my mind a whirlwind of rapid, mental arithmetic, trying to fathom whether or not I’d be tootling my part in the concert hall or from the Delivery Suite itself! Of course I worried about being too tired. Of course I questioned my sanity. But I recall being cheerfully egged on by my mum,

There’s no avoiding tired; the choice is tired and happy or tired and miserable!

And so I did it. I worked like a demon right up to the day my waters broke, juggling my job, two toddlers and Bach with, at times grim, determination. I allowed myself 2 weeks off, when we first brought Small Boy home and then, as he marked his 15th day in this world, I resumed daily practice. The moment ex-hub crossed the threshold from work, I would hand over care of three under 5s and vanish to the back room for an hour of playing.

It didn’t matter that the violinist was a precocious 17 year old virtuoso. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t fit into any concert clothes, (my lovely mum bought me a roomy soloist-style sparkly top). It didn’t matter that I was completely shattered. I powered through with adrenaline and joy, reaping the benefits of all the pre-birth practice regime. The performance was terrific. It also led to tons of other gigs and concerto offers; my golden era of oboe playing.

Today, as I stumble thought the notes, I realise how much my technique and stamina have deteriorated over the last 15 years, particularly since moving North. Nonetheless, I find myself wondering,

Do I have another concerto in me?’

Hey, I’m the woman who performed her first concerto less than 2 months after giving birth so, to this or indeed other new challenges, … never say never…

The unfortunate collision …

Wednesday 22 July 2020

… with the car showroom!

The day starts so well. Having spent the first 2 days of the school holidays clearing out the garage, Wednesday sees Small boy, Prom-dress daughter and I driving to the tip. It is a third day for the grubby, dusty clothes we’ve been wearing for our labours and the car mirror confirms that I do indeed have a cobweb in my hair. But it’s only the tip? Oh and the Macdonald’s  Drive Thru! How else would I have tempted my two teen helpers from their beds before noon?

Rubbish tipped and Maccies bought, we are turning for home when I notice a warning light on the dashboard, for the engine! It is only 24 hours since the car was MOT-ed and the garage who passed trusty old Windsor is close by. So we divert to their forecourt … and it is here that the day begins to unravel…

Garages are busy at the moment, with missed Lockdown appointments overlapping current car crises, and the local garage is frantic when we pull up. Cars everywhere! Not a parking spot to be seen. I gratefully espy an ‘additional customer parking’ sign and decide to follow it. Into a crowded and cramped area we venture and, as we struggle to locate a spare patch to stop in, see a vehicle advancing towards us. I wrench Windsor into reverse and begin to edge my way out. There is a close shave with a van on my side, so I yell at the kids to ‘Keep Watch!‘. The advancing car beeps its horn and I begin to feel frazzled. Both kids are mortified by the confusion P0I am causing,

“Just get out of the way Mum!”

Hurry up!”

In a panic, I swerve to get back on track and there is a sickening crunch, as I grind Windsor firmly into the corner of the car showroom.

A small crowd has gathered as I slink out of the car. Aluminium strips from the edging of the showroom window flap in the breeze. Windsor is a crumpled, twisted mess. My jaw actually drops open. The manager arrives and looks to me for an explanation. Through my sobs, I manage to tell the tale of the warning light and Windsor is driven away for examination.

We are led inside and what a sorry troop we make. Prom-dress daughter clutches a half-eaten bag of Mozzerella sticks as she shuffles forward in fluffy slipper-socks and sliders. Small boy stomps along with eyes resolutely fixed on his trainers. I bring up the rear, my face streaked with tears and spider webs, occasionally hissing out crazed phrases such as ‘all your fault‘ at the kids. Like naughty school children, we are directed to 3 socially distanced seats and grimly await our fate.

The news, when it finally arrives, is not good. The warning light does indeed herald a ‘major engine job’ and phrases such as ‘heavy bill’ and ‘car out of action for 2 weeks’ break the strained silence of the showroom. They have, thankfully, decided not to charge me for the damage to the building, but advise that the car is fit for ‘small journey’s only‘ until they can book me in. I am also on my own, when it comes to repairing the body work. Feeling a little stunned, we get up to leave,

Errr… I’ve brought the car round for you!”  mumbles an anxious mechanic.

I stare at him through glazed eyes. He points helpfully towards the door. We find Windsor, positioned so far through the exit that he is almost on the pavement. They clearly want me off those premises and who can blame them?

I happen know a good garage for body work. We call in on the way home and the cheery owner calms me down with his reassuring, positive words. Further kindness awaits at home, where my eldest sits me in the lounge with a nice cup of coffee and a bowl of pasta. Small Boy hands me the £7 he made recently from selling his old BMX on ebay. I begin to recover. I start to see the funny side.

No escaping one fact though – the next few weeks are going to be expensive and stationary…

The music centre bill..

Saturday 18 July 2020

It drops through the door and sits on the mat; the Music Centre Bill for Autumn term 2020. I scoop it up with the rest of the mail and head to the kitchen, planning to read it over a morning cuppa. But I don’t. Instead I sit, with my tea and just stare and stare at the envelope, gripped by a dread of opening it at all ….

Is it the finances? No, that’s not it. I’ll be honest, getting an invoice is never the greatest moment of the day, but this one will have a due date of September 2020 and I have two more pay cheques before then. Plenty of time to get those funds together.

What then? It is this. Into my July morning comes the realisation that, for the first time since I can remember, there will only be two names, not three on the letter. The chances are that my eldest will not be joining the other two back at Youth Orchestra in the Fall, because she will be heading off to a new life at University. It is a sudden sign that we are rapidly approaching the end of an era. And I am blind-sided.

Of course a University place is not guaranteed for my girl this October. (Who knows what grades will emerge for her from the national machine currently calculating and balancing covid-estimates for all our examination hopefuls this Summer.) But if not this year, then next. And if not to Higher Education, then ultimately to some independent form of adult life. The time for the four of us and family life, with all our glorious traditions, daily routines, crazy plans and fitting comfortably together … it’s over in the very near future.

I’ve known it was coming, but this letter suddenly makes it feel very real and makes my heart feel very sad. I flick the kettle on again and push the letter aside for a moment. One more cuppa and then I’ll face it ….

A second driver …

Saturday 11 July 2020

Tonight marks my first trip to the pub for over 100 days and suddenly the insane amounts I pay for monthly new driver insurance seem worth every penny!

After weekend upon weekend of ‘Ninja Warrior UK‘ and re-runs of every James Bond film in the catalogue, a Saturday Night ‘out’ beckons . Woohoo – what a prospect! I straighten my hair. I dig out scent. I try a dash of lipstick. I brush down a jacket and polish my heels. I seek teen approval on several jewelry combinations. And I am ready. There is only one snag. The pub is miles away…

Living , as we do, on the edge of Manchester, public transport is terrific …or was. The messages about using it, as we stutter out of Lockdown are not wholly encouraging.

“Consider all other travel options …”

Plan ahead, allow extra time…”

If your are travelling, wear a face covering, keep your distance from others, clean your hands frequently …

So when my eldest offers to give me a lift, I am overjoyed.

Being the only driver in the house is a major pain in the proverbial for countless lone parents. In hectic non-Covid times, it was undoubtedly the source of much of my mental and physical exhaustion; single-handedly juggling the impossible logistics of four very busy lives. And for me, so rarely was there a break from the challenge of timetabling and delivering all our transport, that I once actually burst into tears of gratitude when a colleague offered to pick me up for a work’s night out! And tonight it feels very much the same.

Having a co-driver has come at a cost. New driver insurance is jaw-droppingly expensive. My eldest passed her test many month ago and we finally took the costly plunge as she turned 18. It has meant some sacrifices, money is only finite after all, but I have no regrets at all about postponing a few other plans. For me, it has meant reducing stress and occasionally feeling carefree. And that, after 10 years of single-parent grind is simply priceless. It is a life line I wish I had been able to afford sooner but, as is sadly so often the case in our strange society, it is those of us most in need of a break and some support who are least able to afford it.

Still better late than never! I am driven to my night out. I enjoy a pleasant evening in a NorthWest bar dipping its toes back into the night-time economy. The highlight however… my lift home. Yes, as the clock strikes 10:30pm, my carriage in the form of trusty Toyota Windsor, pulls into view and home we go. We laugh, we sing along to Heart 80s. We are warm. We are dry. We are happy.

A second driver, for me it is a single parent game changer!

The new oven…

Sunday 5 July 2020

The household rejoices this week, as our new oven finally arrives!

My old cooker… where to start? The door was permanently rammed shut with a long wooden pole. Even with this ingenious construction, it was slow, slow, slow! Pre-heating the oven? Well we did try but the poor, old thing never once reached temperature. A simple tray of french fries, with a packet guide of ten minutes would take forty-five. The year we attempted to host Christmas Dinner? Well, we’d seen off several gallons of Prosecco, two boxes of crackers and all our party games before there was even the hint of a ‘crisp’ on those roasties!

This weekend, I accept that enough is enough and cashing in on many months of saving up, Small Boy and I, hands sanitised and social distance observed, survey several new devices at our local appliance store and make the purchase.

Meal times are transformed! My heart is in my mouth as Small Boy and his ‘home made pizzas’ christen my shiny, new …. spotlessly clean oven. But, apart from the unaccustomed shock of eye-brow searing heat at we open the door, all goes without a hitch. We all marvel over the new, culinary experience of a pizza base that is ‘crisp’ and cheese that is ‘melted and bubbling’ on top! Throughout the week, the realisation that we can now follow recipe guidance on cooking times, frees us from the logistics of planning, even the simplest of dishes, hours in advance. Food is baked, browned and borne to plates in a blissfully timely manner.

So it is a happy ‘Farewell !’ to pale, underdone chip, luke-warm casseroles and finally sitting down to eat at 9pm at night! New oven – you are a very welcome addition to the house!