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,

You’ll be tired eitherway; may as well be tired and happy as 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, 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!

Single-parenthood necessity – what does it invent?

Sunday 28 July 2019

Now I am obviously biased, but I do think my three teens are growing up to be pretty incredible young people. This week, as I am out with a friend, enjoying fine beers and cocktails, and talking life, they suggest that this is not despite their single parent upbringing… but because of it! Can there really be advantages to this challenging life we lead? It’s certainly not the usual media message but as I mull it over it does start to make a sense, and I decide to do some research.

I have yet to unearth a recent, comprehensive study in this area, however there is an abundance of current writing that is now prepared to acknowledge advantages, alongside disadvantages of lone-parenting for children. Before I look at these, I can only stress that I am not going to pretend it isn’t an unbelievable tough path. Jenni Lee’s heartbreaking poem Secret’s of a single mum, contains verses I’ve certainly experienced and would love to share with my Ex and his family, if only I thought they would listen or care. However the poem also encapsulates the key to using your circumstances to your childrens’ advantage. Here’s the moment,

“When I feel like a failure, that I am just letting you down, that I wish I could do more for you, you snuggle up to me on the sofa, you make a cup of tea, you look at me and smile, you come up to me and tell me you love me. Those little things mean the world to me.…”

In short, children will help, if you communicate and ask for their support, and this in turn helps them to grow and develop as people. And it’s possibly in the single parent unit that we need to ask for their help a little more often than elsewhere.

So where are the potential benefits? Top of most lists comes that it teaches independence and responsibility. “Because single parents are already so busy, children should be encouraged to be like the member of a team …” argues one report. That is a definite strength our our family unit. As we all grow up, we play to each other’s strengths and work most successfully when we work as a team. This celebrates and develops strengths, confidence and self-esteem. And it has developed me as a team player too . Most importantly, I have learned and continue to learn, to listen ‘with my ears’!

Another suggested advantage, cited in several reports, is the good ‘role -modelling’ of issues like: problem solving, money management, and resilience. I know that I have been forced to learn so many new skills since taking on sole responsibility for the management of the household, and my children have seen me do it, often sharing the challenge. In consequence possibly they are more resourceful, less likely to think ‘I can’t do…’ and more likely to think instead ‘How will I learn to do …’ than others? One terrifying Ballet Class ordeal aside (and that’s another story!), they certainly don’t seem to be quitters and we have battled through some very tricky times together.

Different reports debate different gains and losses, but I don’t feel the need to read anymore because I think my research has already taught me an important lesson. Your family circumstances will undeniably shape you. The key, to making the most of this, is to see your particular situation as an opportunity, not as I have often done , a mountain to climb in trying to catch up with ‘more fortunate’ others. If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, then perhaps in the single parent household, embracing the tough challenges it presents can invent some very remarkable children. It feels like a very new outlook on life and it feels very exciting…

Spa Day!

Thursday 25 July 2019

I do follow other single-mum bloggers; and they are often passionate about the need for we lone-parents to treat and take care of ourselves. I have always been sceptical, genuinely so challenged by keeping kids, wider family, work and my bank manager happy that I cannot face the thought of making time to think about my own well-being as well. But after a glorious day at the spa…I think they may have a point!

It’s the hottest day of the year, when records are set to break in distant corners of the South of England, as Spa Day dawns. Two of my teens are on a Youth Orchestra tour of Belgium and the third has gone to spend a day with his nana, so I am already childfree. There is however an added bonus. I have a lift and so, in what feels like the ultimate luxury, I am car-free too. As a result, my mood is already joyful as, unable to believe our weather-luck, four of us rendez-vous in the foyer, change into our swimwear and make a beeline for the outdoor pool(s) area.

It is utter bliss. We are a trusty quartet who have survived several years of work together, have run together, drunk together and failed hilariously in the work quiz together. So I know that the company will be great and it is. We share laughter, lunch and lots of lovely chilled white wine. But another stand out feature of today is the luxury. As I lower myself into the warm embrace of a bubbling jacuzzi, I feel the pain lift from my poor aching limbs, which carry the scars of overworking and overdriving in recent months. I feel pampered. I feel cared for. I feel at peace. Those bubbles seem to tell me that I do matter and I am worth it! And I realise that this is often the missing ingredient in my busy life. And it feels fantastic!

Now, wondrous as my day is, I cannot see myself finding the time or money to make a spa day a regular feature on the calendar. However, I do think making a bit of time for myself and my wellbeing probably is essential. So I re-read a great post on this topics from The Perfect Juggler, 7 types of Self Care that don’t cost a penny…. Actually, I find that I already do several of the suggestions, but here is my challenge. When life gets frantic, make sure that the first thing to fall by the wayside is not me and my time and my happiness. Now that sounds like a plan!

Tao of Glass and end of term

Sunday 21 July 2019

On Thursday, I try to cast aside my end of term exhaustion and head out for the evening to see ‘Tao of Glass’ , a world premiere piece of theatre, produced by the Manchester International Festival. This one will divide opinion, but I find it a mesmerising performance; visually stunning, very emotive and gently humorous.

However the final 10-15 minutes feature our protagonist lying on a revolving stage, next to a Steinway recorder playing an original piece of Philip Glass music, recorded by Philip Glass himself. It is beautiful and very relaxing …a little too relaxing as it transpires. I nod off and have to be nudged back into wakefulness by my companion. Next morning, it is still only in this semi-awake state, I stumble through a half-Friday to reach the end of term.

And so the sun sets on another school year and a hectic few weeks at home. As I collapse into bed, I am feeling shattered, dizzy and very unwell. I don’t emerge again until today and I have little idea where the previous 40 hours have gone.

Teens welcome me back to the world, and fill me in on the missing day and a half. They’ve certainly made the most of it! The girls have lots of shopping bags, all three have been to the cinema and Prom-dress daughter informs me that she’s cancelled her violin lesson! Oh well, reassuring to know that I’ve reared three independent souls, who can survive the odd day without a fully-functioning parent in the house. Thank the lord for my mum, who will doubtless have ensured that no-one starved, and bring on the Summer holidays…

Cracking the code…

Tuesday 16 July 2019

After a long day at work, there’s no rest for me. My eldest has a driving theory test and I have agreed to be her chauffeur. Upon reaching our location, we are greeted by a sign announcing that ‘Candidates may NOT park at the Centre’. And so it it that I drop her off and then park myself on a dodgy side street, where I try to get on with some work.

Up ahead, a group of youths are knocking on car windows and asking for money. The driver, two cars in front of me hands over some cash and they disappear. The street is quiet after that, nonetheless I decide to keep my window shut and it starts to get very stuffy. Feeling drowsy and struggling to concentrate on my task, I turn to the internet for diversion, and am woken up by Dr Emily Grossman’s article in the Guardian,

Putting Alan Turing on the £50 note is a triumph for British science – and for equality

Hip hip hooray! Back in the Autumn, when the Bank of England launched the public vote on this issue, Turing was my man! There’s the incredible contribution his mathematical brain made to the development of computing, which is mind blowing. And, of course, his legendary code-breaking at Bletchley Park,

You needed exceptional talent, you needed genius at Bletchley and Turing’s was that genius.” ( Asa Briggs )

But with Turing, the human story is equally powerful. Under the Official Secrets Act, much of his work was to remain hidden for a long time, denying him deserved recognition. At the age of 39, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ due to a relationship with another man, a judgement that led to the removal of his security clearance. Despite his outstanding contribution to war time intelligence, he was barred from continuing with his cryptographic consultancy for the GCHQ. Far more shockingly, Turing also underwent ‘chemical castration’ treatment, to avoid imprisonment, and died 2 years later, an inquest ruled by suicide.

About 10 years ago, petitions began for his pardon. In 2014, the Queen granted a full pardon and by 2016 the “Alan Turing law” paved the way to retroactively pardon other men too.

We ask the HM Government to grant a pardon to Alan Turing for the conviction of “gross indecency” … Alan Turing was driven to a terrible despair and early death by the nation he’d done so much to save….A pardon can go some way to healing this damage. It may act as an apology to many of the other gay men, not as well-known as Alan Turing, who were subjected to these laws.

So one of the founding fathers of computing, an unsung hero of our war effort and a significant icon for equality. If, like me, you are a mathematician, its is a wonderful privilege to have lived this life seeing the world through the eyes of many of the greatest minds humankind has ever known. And this man is undoubtedly up there at the top, for his immense and lasting contribution to our modern society. I am overjoyed that he has won a place on our £50 note and, as I look closely, the image also features a short piece of binary code. Cocooned as I may be, within the confines of my clammy car, trying to decode this keeps me busy until my eldest emerges triumphant from her theory test…

I am done…

Saturday 13 July 2019

I arrive home from my final concert of the season, pour myself a brandy, sink onto the sofa and realise that I am… done!

In the last month, my amazing eldest has: traversed the UK to attend Uni Open Days, coped with Y12 mocks, trekked the Lake District peaks with pack on her pack, camped with fellow DOE expeditioners, surviving on cuppa-soup and pasta, volunteered at a local care home and performed in several concerts. Nonetheless, this week, as others break up for Summer, she completes a week of work experience in a local hospital … and I have chauffered her there daily.

On top of this extra driving, I have survived another week at work. I have found the evening-energy to rehearse and practise. There’s been no time to run. I am low on sleep and nutrition and, I am ashamed to admit, getting through most days with anadin and alcohol.

Tonight was the concert. Usually this would bring my mood soaring right back up, but all the logistics and demands of recent weeks have taken their toll, and I am now just finished. I think it goes quite well, although it’s a very fast and jazzy piece and in places I am just hanging on for dear life. But there is no buzz and I feel a little flat. I admit that the engine has stalled on my ‘Smashing Single Parenthood’ machine this week and I am squarely in survival gear right now!

I have, in all the chaos, missed important hospital appointments for myself and Prom-dress Daughter. I feel frustrated and frazzled by endless driving and traffic lights and traffic jams and hear myself screaming unspeakable abuse at unsuspecting drivers. I feel dragged down by routines and cooking and washing and ironing and just all the dreary decisions and jobs that come about when you are the only adult in the household. I feel trapped and low and on the verge of tears.

I need to cheer up and, as if sent from heaven, I switch on the TV to Simon Pegg lighting up my screen! (I’ll confess, he is a bit of a hero of mine, Run Fat Boy Run, Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead comedy classics that I’ve watched many times) I’ve never heard of tonight’s film, ‘Man-Up‘. It is a totally ridiculous romcom but, as ever with ‘The Pegster’, the scenes just make me laugh out loud … and laughter always works for me. My gloom lifts like a glorious magical mist and I head to bed knowing that tomorrow is another day and a new opportunity to do things a bit better. I also wonder if Simon Pegg is single …