Show me to the flat pack…

Saturday 17 July 2021

Sometimes, as I am scooping spiders out of bathrooms, battling with the lawnmower, jolting around the estate with learner driver Prom-dress daughter at the wheel or shoulder-barging Small boy at basketball, I do appreciate that single parenthood equips you with skills you never foresaw when discussing your life plan with the school careers advisor. And this weekend, marks a true Everest of personal achievements….

After a few covid-19 delays, we are collecting my Eldest from her new student house in the North East for the Summer. She calls midweek with a request,

“Mum, could you bring a screwdriver and hammer on Saturday? I’ve got to make a chest of drawers.”

And so it is, that just after noon and a drive up the A1, I saunter into the student kitchen brandishing our family tool box and drill.

Oooh how professional! ‘ coos one of her housemates.

And it makes my day! I feel like some empowered, positive role model of female capability and follow my Eldest to her room with my head held high!

What the lovely students don’t know, but the rest of my household do, is that I only really have one professional piece of kit with me in the car… and that is my middle child. But in the searing heat of a third floor attic room, I have been inspired to play my part. Prom-dress daughter has the plan and gives the directions but, doing exactly what I am told: I drill, I hammer and I dowel like a trooper.

We stop for lunch out, in the vibrant and trendy cafe-bar area my Eldest now lives in and, then return to complete our mission. What a triumph! Never has a pretty basic set of drawers looked better in my eyes. The sweat, the plastic burns (long story), the occasional splinter … all worth it! It was, I have to concede, as a former scorner of DIY, strangely satisfying slots and fitting it all together. I celebrate with a murky cup of tea, from the student kitchen that has just run out of milk, and then we hit the road.

My younger pair share a Spotify Account, and we sing our way back down the motorway to their assorted play lists. Weary but happy, we arrive home midway through Saturday evening.

Have I morphed into some building stereo-type, I ponder as a I wave aside a gin and tonic and treat myself instead to a couple of cold beers? And possibly it is the beer talking as I announce that our next holiday project is demolishing the dilapidated old garden shed …. ourselves. Let’s see if I am still as enthusiastic after a good night’s sleep…

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….

She’s got a ticket to ride…

Saturday  June 2021

With A’level assessments over, Prom-dress daughter heads off  to the North East to spend a few days with her sister.  Her only worry? The train… its is her first solo journey…

My middle child struggles with the unknown, she always has, and a 2 hour train trip, with one change, on her own for the first time, has pushed her completely out of her comfort zone. We drive to the station in strained silence and sitting outside a nearby coffee shop in the Saturday sunshine, her panic even spills into a few tears. Once again, we go through the  route, where to find platform info, how to open the carriage door and where to put luggage. I give her a reassuring hug and  she tries to calm down.

Wondering if I have underestimated her anxiety on this occasion, I offer to persuade the attendant to let me through the first barrier so that I can see her get onto the first train. How I love her reply!

“Do you know what Mum, I think I just need to go for it and do this on my own!”

And she does. I have my phone ready and I probably get over 25 texts in the next 10 minutes, checking and asking about absolutely every detail. But, as my lovely girl finds, that she has actually successfully boarded the correct train without any help, I know that her confidence has rocketed because I scarcely hear from her again. One brief text letting me know that the change at York has gone well and then… nothing at all. It is my eldest who lets me know that she has arrived safely and it makes me smile… it takes me back to Day 1 at High School…

Day 1 at High School was the bus journey.  We’d done a dummy run and for extra support on that first morning, we’d arranged that I would shadow her on the bus too. I’d get on, sit as far away as possible, avoid eye contact and generally act as if we’d never met. But, if anything went wrong, I would be there.

It worked a treat, but the clearest memory I have is of the moment we all disembarked. By this time there was a throng of unformed pupils all treading the route to the school gates and I can still picture my daughter turning round and giving me a tiny wave… it was a wave goodbye, a wave to say ‘Okay on my own now Mum’ , a wave for me to let her find her own way. And I often say that by the time she came back home that day, she was already a different child. More confident, more independent and more free.

And I think I know that when she comes home next week, she’ll have changed again and be a different young woman to the one I dropped off this morning. More sure of herself, more ready for autonomy and more excited about opening the door to embrace the opportunities that life offers as you start to make your own way in it.

These are important milestones and good steps to take. These are times to feel quite proud, as a mum, to sit back and let them be ‘okay on my own now ‘

What do we tell our daughters?

Mother’s Day 2021

As the sun sets on Mother’s Day 2021, the saddest of events in the UK has left me wresting with a pretty challenging maternal dilemma…

The death of Sarah Everard in London, murdered as she walked home from a friend’s house, strikes a terrifying chord with most women this week. And I am not only a woman in my own right, I am also a mum to two wonderful daughters. What advice do I give them that allows them to live their lives, freely, boldly and with adventure but also keeps them safe?

In a midweek call, my Eldest wants to talk running shoes. Let me re-phrase, she want to talk about me paying for running shoes!

You’ll be so proud of me mum! I am taking up running!

I am pleased, but one question, screaming in my head that I try so hard not to ask, is not about distances or training schedules or Strava….

Who will you be running with?”, I eventually blurt out

Mostly just on my own… like you do mum!” comes my daughter’s cheery reply

And my heart goes cold. Do I now have to tell my lovely girl how I run by myself: always in daylight, always on a busy main road, never through a park, a wood or a country track, never with headphones… the safety measures go on and on and on. Do men have these thoughts? I just don’t know. What I do know however is that I have been having them since the age of 13.

Thirteen was third year at school and coincided with the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe’s reign of terror. Our teachers spoke to us about it in lessons. Some girls had sisters at Leeds Uni and we prayed for their safety and courage for their families. Although 25 miles away, we were also told to be careful. And I was petrified. Haunted in sleepless nights and dreading… just dreading each day, the long, dark and lonely walk from the bus stop to home. When he was caught, I thought I might feel safe again. But, once planted, the worry and fear never goes away completely.

Even now, the walk back to the car, on my own in the dark still panics me at the end of every rehearsal and concert. I no longer use the car boot, but instead have perfected a technique of hurling my oboe, stand and myself into the front seat as quickly as I can before hitting the locked door switch. My first solo rung on the property ladder, at the age of 28, was a flat, because it felt safer than a house with a garden and rear access. If I do have to head out, on foot, in the dark for any reason, I walk in the middle of the road and with keys firmly gripped between the knuckles. It is very sad and what shocks me to the core this week, as I listen to various radio phone-ins, is the sheer numbers of other women who also live like this.

Ninety seven percent! That, in research by UN Women UK, is the staggering statistic, giving the proportion of women aged 18 to 24 who report being sexually harassed. Surely unbelievable? But, as I look back, I do recall episodes from my own past. Running for cover, as a teenager in France, when man exposed himself to me and my friend and ‘pleasured himself’ all over our picnic rug. In my twenties, followed back to the hotel in Portugal and bombarded with calls to our room, from the reception desk throughout the night. Chased by a group of young men in a car and then on foot, when a friend and I once did cut through a forest path a night. And I am sure of this. We didn’t report any of these incidents to anyone. We didn’t expect anyone to protect us. We admonished ourselves and expected to modify our behaviour. Only go out in groups of four or more. Stay closer to the hotel compound. Keep to the busy main roads. I now realise that this cannot be right. Cannot be fair. Cannot be acceptable. But how will it ever change?

And what to tell my daughters right now? Or, as some commentators suggest this week, what to tell my son? For me however, it seems far easier to bring up the subject and find the words for a chat with Small Boy. Hey, he is currently reading We should all be feminists’, he’d probably be able to offer me a few pointers! Plus I remember the lovely men I grew up with. Such as my boyfriend’s pal J, who would walk 18- year old me home every Saturday night from our Metro stop. It was about 30 minutes out of his way, but at the start when I’d bravely say

Oh you really don’t have to – it’s such a long way!

He would laugh and make light of it,

I know I don’t have to, but you are doing me a favour! Mum –I did know his mum- will kill me if I go home this drunk! The walk will sober me up!”

or

You say it a long way, but it’s still nowhere near long enough for you to explain how on earth you think The Style Council can ever compare to The Jam!

And later, when I was honest enough to just say ‘Thank you’ he replied,

“It really is nothing and it stops me worrying about you all night !”

Yes, he was worrying too. And I am sure that many dads, brothers and good male friends also find this situation intolerable.

But is still leave me wondering, what to tell my daughters. The national debate, demands that we aim to re-educate and change our culture completely. But I decide that I cannot wait that long. Many authors have described violence against women as the ‘hidden pandemic’ and  I certainly fear it more than I fear covid-19. Abhorrent as it is to accept that my daughters too may face a life of caution and unease,  the thought of them coming to harm is even more chilling.

The balance between freedom and safety makes a fateful tip. I hit the facetime button,

So, running on your own is fine but you might want to think about these few pointers….