Category Archives: Womanhood

Speak up for your bad days: they’re important too

I had every intention of sitting down tonight and writing about T’s birthday. We had a grand day. I’ve got lots of very pretty-looking pictures. But whenever I write something especially appreciative about my children on this blog, the universe intervenes to make sure they’re little horrors the day after. And so they have been.

We are tired after yesterday, and too hot. Early this morning they were both crying over UNMENTIONABLE TRAINS before I’d even made breakfast. Tim leapt around the house looking for work stuff because he was running late for a meeting. I tried to put T down so that I could pick H up, and he cried harder and wrapped his legs around my torso.

That was all it took, just that. I looked at our house strewn with birthday debris; my two hysterical sons I had to somehow soothe, feed, clean and dress in the next hour; my husband who was about to sprint for his train and deal with rational adults all day, like a proper grown-up. A great surge of frustration became fury by the time it reached my throat and I yelled at no one in particular: ‘THIS. IS. MY. JOBBBB.’ Like an actual, pyjama-clad lunatic.

For one minute, you see, I wished so very much that it wasn’t. I used to joke that working with academics made me an ideal candidate for raising toddlers, but no academic I ever dealt with wanted me to carry them on my hip while I made them breakfast and found the one bleeping train that won’t be found.

And I wasn’t going to write about it, because moaning is boring – or worse, entitled and infuriating. There’s always someone who wishes desperately they were in your shoes, even while you’re wishing yourself out of them.  I have two healthy children. I am incredibly lucky to be able to stay home with them full-time while working a little on the side. And Tim would tell you if you asked him (I remember myself) that working full-time has its fair share of stresses and negatives too. I know all this.

So I was going to swallow it down. Pretend it didn’t happen, and post some pretty pictures instead. Smooth down my rough edges for a reading audience. It’s all so much more comfortable that way.

I think women do this a lot. We think negative emotions make us unattractive. We think expressing them makes us nags, or cynics, or bores. As mothers especially, we apologise for them, or we ring-fence them with comedy. We sand down our rough edges to take up less space, to be less objectionable to whomever might be watching.

Today I have decided: stuff that. You can take that idea, and stuff it right into some place you’ll never see again.

You don’t owe anyone a good day. You owe yourself care, and you owe other people empathy and consideration, but you don’t owe them quietness.

I don’t mean that it’s a good idea to ferret out the downsides in whatever situation you’re in, because doing that makes me miserable. Looking on the bright side is good. But I assert my right to take up authentic, emotional space using a full range of feelings, not just the ones that make me seem nicer. I want the ones that make me real. That’s what I’m trying to show and tell my boys, after all: all of your emotions are ok. You need to express them in a way that doesn’t involve disrespect or fists, but it’s alright to feel whatever you feel.

All of my experiences will make me who I am in five years, ten years, twenty. All of them, the guts and grit and glory. Not only the ones that came with a DSLR and coordinating outfits.

Guys, today was pretty hard. Today H ran into the sprinkler and soaked his school uniform just as T slipped down five stairs and banged his elbow, and we were already five minutes late. Today I looked into days and years and YEARS of cajoling lasagne into the mouths of kids who don’t want to eat it, and it felt a little like despair to me.

It was a hard day, and it made me feel bad, and I’m owning it. Tomorrow will probably be better.

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Ironically, since my phone is broken, I only have DSLR photos. So some days are like this. Some days are…not.

Pinterested in this article? Mouse over this bad boy:
Speak up for your bad days

Belong to where you are

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I have this Anthony Burrill print on the wall of my downstairs loo. Ideally I would sit and ponder on it while I use the facilities, though of course I never use the facilities without a curious onlooker keen to hand me loo roll and compare genitalia.

(‘I just love talking to you’, H said the other day, when I requested some privacy.

‘Could you love talking to me in the times I’m not trying to wee?’ I asked. No go.)

I think about it, though. Belong to where you are.

It’s what we all want, isn’t it? Belonging? We want to sit in a place that fits, and feel like people are glad we sit there. I think I associate a compulsive need to belong with my teenage years, but really it’s never stopped. Back then there was the queen bee corner where the attractive rich kids sat, and the counter-cool staircase where the kids who unironically listened to Linkin Park sat. My own little tribe, the one I found eventually, was intensely saturated in American TV, films, a few totemic fantasy books and some elaborate in-jokes we all obsessed over. I think for a good five years we mostly spoke in quotes.

Being a shy teenager has left me with some sticky leftovers: one, I will never, in my heart of hearts, think I’m cool enough to be interesting; and two, I harbour an embarrassing, subconscious fascination with the queen bee corner. I’m thirty, and somewhere deep down I still want a popular kid to pick me out of the crowd and talk to me because they think I’m special.

It’s only just recently occurred to me that I can be the one who starts the conversation.

I hope I’m not alone in this (please tell me I’m not) but I’m great at thinking of reasons why I can’t belong.

I can’t be a writer because I don’t have a book deal (or ideas to put in a book, to be honest, apart from a detailed examination of nappy rash).

I can’t be a runner because I’m so astoundingly bad at it (seriously. According to Tim’s heart rate monitor, when I run my heart beats right out of the Maximum Exercise Zone and into the You’re Going To Die, Fool, Stop It zone).

I can’t be an attachment parent because, while I agree with the basic philosophies, I don’t enjoy co-sleeping, at ALL, and also breastfeeding was a hellscape of underfed babies and self-loathing.

I can’t be an Instagram queen because I don’t have any white chipboard to arrange my lunch on. My table is made of TODDLER-SCRATCHED GLASS, hello, so the background turns into an interesting fusion of discarded toast crusts and my own knees.

I can’t be a proper blogger because I don’t have ten thousand followers (don’t think I mind this, little band of followers: I love you with all my heart).

I can’t be your friend at the school gates because I’m young and an idiot and this is my first child and I don’t know what I’m doing.

Blah, blah, blah. Scumbag brain. I’m sure you’ve got lots of your own.

But it’s all nonsense, isn’t it? Who says I can’t try hard at something, and belong there even when I fail? We get to create spaces for us to sit. We get to be the ones to pick someone out of a crowd and start a conversation. We don’t need to wait for an invitation. More and more I believe that you’ll never lose out, being a little kinder than people expect.

Yesterday I was walking to nursery, and a girl walked past in exercise gear. She wasn’t your typical exercise-nut shape, and her headphones were probably a bit too big for a jog, and she looked red-faced and out of breath. But you know what? She was killing it. There was triumph in every line of her, and I knew that whatever she was doing, it was a huge step and she was proud of it. I wanted to be her flipping cheerleader, and follow her around just doing the Rocky air punch. It was fantastic. I beamed all the way home.

So I have decided not to be intimidated by anyone at the school gates come September. Some of them will be older and most of them will be fancier (ulp), but there’s no reason why we can’t be friends.

And I’m going to submit some work to some different places, and see where it takes me.

And I saw headphones girl again this morning, as I staggered behind the pushchair in my lycra towards the end of my four miles. We were killing it, and we knew it. We gave each other a giant wave.

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On ovary-wrestling

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I’ve been struggling a bit with hormone rampages in the last few weeks. It’s been hard not to tip myself into sadness or self-flagellation every time my tether’s been shorter than I wanted, or I’ve forgotten to reply to an important message, or walked straight past the reusable shopping bags on my way out to Tesco (every. time.).

Riding the ole oestrogen wave colours all of my comings and goings with extra melodrama, like looking through a stained-glass window where every piece is the shape of a furrowed eyebrow. You may not know this (OF COURSE YOU KNOW THIS), but drama is sort of my life language already. One of these days I’ll hire myself a backing orchestra and be done with it.

Until then I’ve got on with important things like staring dolefully at the soap dish in the shower, obsessively reliving every human interaction to see if people really like me, and noticing the return of the freckle on my nose that looks like a chocolate smear, and having to go for a bit of a lie down. The ordinary incidents of our day – things I would normally laugh about, blog about, or send comical all-caps text messages about – have left me exhausted.

Do you think that when it’s the small stuff that knocks you down, only small stuff will pick you up? I’ve been sat in gloom so often this month and then been pulled back to myself, inch by inch, by a tiny, joyous thing. Some little sign from the universe that everything is working according to plan. Like:

sitting on the needled floor of the forest, listening with half an ear to boys arguing over Thundercats, and noticing an inch-long, bright green fern pushing out of the brown leaf mould next to my foot. A perfect curl at the top of it, defiantly taking its share of sun. Then looking more closely, and realising I’m surrounded by them, and just hadn’t seen.

***

laboriously shampooing dried honey out of my fringe after too little sleep, then opening my eyes to see that my water splashes have made a little column of hearts on the shower screen.

***

squatting on hands and knees by the high chair, picking up dropped noodles and peas one by one (because you can’t hoover them till they’re dry and I don’t have time to wait) and finding a mosaic of refracted rainbows on the porridge-stained carpet.

***

pausing in the middle of an oration on The Importance of Eating All One’s Lunch because the sunlight has reached over my shoulder to H, opposite, and lit up every blue-green-yellow-brown-turquoise hiding in his eyes, and it’s taken my breath a little bit.

***

I don’t know if you’re staring at a soap dish somewhere too.

Since it often takes someone else to remind you of what’s true when your stained glass tells you something different, let me tell you (and you can tell me, and we can tell each other): the sun will come up tomorrow too, like it always does.

There are tiny rainbows on your dirtiest carpet.

And there’s a forest floor somewhere near me, where new green ferns are growing, against all the odds, into light.

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A manifesto for being an all-round good egg at thirty

You do not know how hard I had to work to post a photo of me from the side with all my wrinkles intact. It's for a good cause. *sob*

You do not know how hard I had to work to post a photo of me from the side with all my wrinkles intact. It’s for a good, being-more-self-accepting cause. *sob*

I’ve been thirty for a week and I’m not dead yet.

I jest. I’ve been gently bemoaning my age as this birthday has approached, but my heart hasn’t really been in it. The one small moment of panic I had in January, where I sobbed ‘I’M GOING TO BE THIRTY AND I DON’T KNOW IF I’M DOING ANYTHING WORTHWHILE’, felt like it came from the usual insecurities of having small children and no performance reviews, and from the idea that I was supposed to be having a breakdown and had a spare ten minutes to get it done. (Do you ever feel something because you think you ought to? I think I do.)

So far – and it’s early days – I feel like thirty has given me permission to be unapologetic about myself. I spent most of my teens and twenties trying to fit myself in boxes that weren’t for me, like almost every other person in their teens and twenties who aren’t Luna Lovegood. Wishing my body looked different, trying not to resent the pounds I put on in pregnancy, the bagginess, flatness, fullness that came afterwards. Or adapting myself to the company I was in: trying to seem less clever or more clever, less religious, more conservative, less bothered about things that bothered me a lot (and vice versa). Trying to adopt the right parenting philosophies so the mother tribes would let me in. Worrying that being shy made me boring.

That last might still be true. But in the past months I’ve been feeling more and more comfortable in my own skin. I’m a champion worrier so it’s a bit odd: will it last? Is it a temporary madness? I’d like it to stick around. So, it’s election season here in the UK, and I thought I’d get on the bandwagon. Here’s a manifesto of sorts: things I would like to aspire to, most especially when I’m frantic and insecure, now that I’ve hit my one-score-and-ten.

This party would like to remember that its body has had a crazy five years. Sometimes I watch the boys running around and want to yell ‘hey, look at them! This body made them! This one here!’ First there came the growing-and-birthing part, which I need to tell you was not an inconsiderable commitment. Now I spend all my time jogging next to balance bikes, lifting into car seats, avoiding kicking tantrum legs, gathering little bodies onto my lap and rubbing backs while they cry snot into my hair. It’s hard and joyous graft. I’ve come a long way in the last decade, and so has the body I’m in. I want to give it the credit it’s due, treat it well and then embrace it as it is.

This party would like to write, and not be embarrassed about writing. And actually get paid for writing more often, because then I would be living my BEST LIFE.

This party will own what it believes in. I am a Mormon, and a liberal, and a feminist. It can be tricky to be all three. But I love my faith with a passion and I believe in liberal ideologies with a passion and I get very exercised about women’s rights. And, you know, I just don’t feel like playing any of them down anymore. There’s a Mantel quote that I love, and I think I’m going to stick it up somewhere:

‘I cannot unbelieve what I believe. I cannot unlive my life’.

Hear flipping hear.

This party will remember that being sane is important, and hobbies help it to remain so. I have interests both high and low, and it feels like I’m always mentally apologising for one of them. Sometimes I want something that makes me think, and sometimes I want to sit still while my brain dribbles gently out of my ears. I want to exist, unabashed, in the intellectual space I have room for at the time, whether that’s reading a Booker prize winner or an Agatha Christie, listening to symphonies or Heart Radio, watching art documentaries or House.

This party would like to organise its life in such a way that it never needs to take toddlers into a supermarket again. Seriously, it’s a killer. I would like to strike Putting Off Doing The Online Shop Until There Is Literally No Food To Feed The Clamouring Children off my list of special talents, where it reigns supreme.

This party intends to honour its need for space and quiet, but not make this an excuse. I am an introvert, but I never want to use it as an excuse for being rude. The older I get, the more I think that there’s not much more important than fulfilling your obligations and being kind. Or rather, so many things get easier when you’re pulling your weight and being kind first. I want to be someone people talk to because they know I’ll listen. I want to look after the friendships that mean the most to me. I want to be gracious (isn’t that a lovely word? I feel like hugging it to my chest).

This party declares its interest in wearing more shirts and eating more doughnuts. I’m wearing a shirt today with dragonflies on it, and honestly, just looking at my cuffs is filling me with glee. You can’t buy that happiness (actually you can, in TK Maxx. It was a steal).

I love the chap I married, and I love the boys we made, and I love the house we live in. And I know a lot of quite amazing people I can glom onto and learn from. That seems like a pretty solid base to start your next decade. So, um, vote for being thirty? I have doughnuts.

You can also vote for your favourite ever age, in the comments below. Thus far, honestly? My vote would be this one.

Oh, were you wanting a photo that totally encapsulates my life at the moment? Here you go!

Perhaps you were wanting a photo that totally encapsulates my life at the moment. Et voilà, it appears.

The women who made me

Nana

 

If I am a good mother, it’s because of my Nanna.

It’s because I learned from her that little things mean a lot to little people.

It’s because I know it’s possible to bear physical limitations and pain with unbelievable grace.

It’s because I believe most problems can be solved with a weekly helping of stew and dumplings.

It’s because I’ve seen the power of small acts of love, repeated over and over, for years.

 

Grandma (2)

 

If I am a good mother, it’s because of my Grandma.

It’s because I’ve seen how a mother can love better and stronger the bigger a family gets.

It’s because I have hope that I can come out of insane parenting chaos with my sanity and self intact.

It’s because I know I only need a loaf of bread to feed a crowd.

It’s because I learned the power of an unbreakable partnership with the one you love.

 

Grandmothers-in-law

 

If I am a good mother, it’s because of my grandmothers-in-law.

It’s because I know what it means to be a safe, kind place for someone new and insecure.

It’s because I learned that life is long, and full of adventures.

It’s because I feel the bonds that are made with thoughtful cards on the doormat.

It’s because I have hope that it will all be alright in the end, no matter what happens on the way.

 

mother-in-law

 

If I am a good mother, it’s because of my mother-in-law.

It’s because I believe that fresh air will solve most toddler problems.

It’s because I want everyone to be welcome at our dinner table, too.

It’s because I’ve learned about unflagging, tireless, practical kindness.

It’s because I’ve seen how to be illuminated by fierce spirituality.

 

Mama

 

If I am a good mother, it’s because of my mother.

It’s because I want to be the mother beloved of my children’s friends.

It’s because I appreciate a good kitchen dance party.

It’s because I’ve watched what it does when you build people up, instead of tearing them down.

It’s because I know that quiet, steady belief in my children will keep them going when nothing else does.

It’s because I want to be the gentle voice in the middle of the night, saying that everything will be ok.

 

If I am a good mother, it’s because I have been beautifully mothered. I am not just made of myself. I’m held up by women I have loved and who love me. And I have much further to go before I’ve learned all the lessons they’ve taught me.

But still, they’re there.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Live a little

Come and sit by me, I want a chat.

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I feel two-dimensional, often, as the mother of two toddlers.

And I need a better way of categorising them than that, for a start. ‘Two toddlers’ is too brief to convey the sweat and tears and bruises and seesawing emotions. It says nothing about the early mornings, disturbed nights, battleground mealtimes, or constant anticipating and managing of their shifting moods.

It doesn’t talk about how they’re both toddlers, but at different stages with entirely different needs, and yet all of those needs are relentless and all the time, every minute that they’re awake.

It doesn’t get across the joy of it, either – the absolute heart-hurting beauty of their expansion and questioning and love. What a privilege it is to watch. How often I fall short of the trust they place in me, because they have to, because I make everything they know.

It consumes me. I never wanted to be consumed.

Over the summer I started getting twitchy about how much time Tim was spending on his bike. We have always encouraged each other to pursue our own interests: the ones that we fell in love with in the first place, that make us well-rounded people. But I was irritated by his ‘time off’ not because he wasn’t allowed it, but because I couldn’t think of anything I could do for myself in turn. I asked myself what my hobbies were, and came up with a buzzing blank. All of my thinking, writing, talking: all of it, about these boys.

Let me say that I know this time is short, and I will miss it when it’s gone.

Let me say that I believe creating and moulding this family will be the most important thing I will ever do.

Let me say that, despite all that, because of all that, I need to show them that I am their mother with my whole person. There are depths beyond the business of their immediate care. There are places I find joy that no one else can touch. They need to see it. If I do not start by showing them that women are three-dimensional, complex and interesting, how will they believe it of the women they will meet later?

I was revolving this around late one night, yearning for something I couldn’t put into words. What is it? I thought. What is it I want?

The answer came, eventually.

I want a richer life.

***

I’ve had that in my head as summer has deepened into autumn. A richer life. Not a different one, and not a busier one, but one with better things in it. More little things that make me happy. More balance. More connections. More attention to my spirit. If the canvas of my day felt like mostly pastel watercolour, I wanted oils. Have you ever seen a Van Gogh close up? The brush strokes are tiny, but every one of them is richly coloured and meaningfully placed. It’s one of the reasons I love him so much.

Um, I’m getting carried away.

I think it’s worth a shot, though, so I’ve been trying hard to put little dots of richness into my everyday. Here are some of the ideas I’ve been trying out:

– spending more time outdoors, in nature

– expressing appreciation to friends

– starting a book club

– choosing our family activities more carefully, so we’re outside/interacting/seeing new things/performing service

– exercising a couple of times a week (WHAT, I KNOW)

– using the fancy pottery and napkins at dinner

– having flowers on the table

– making my phone harder to reach from bed

– buying the good ice cream

– resurrecting old interests in art, history, music, theatre, and making dates to enjoy them

Not all of them at once. I’m not looking to be more stressed, just better balanced. I am in here somewhere, and so are you. So I am choosing little things, richly coloured, meaningfully placed. To help me feel like I can stand out on the canvas. Life in oils.

I think I’m starting to feel better.

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So tell me, because I need solidarity: have you ever caught yourself being COMPLETELY wrapped up in what you do for your kids? And what weird and wonderful interests do you have (or once have) that make you yourself? I can name the wigs in any episode of Alias you care to mention, and could tell you some things about the Tudor court that would make your hair curl.

I eat my feelings, and maybe you do too

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I am the sort of person who thinks a lot about food. You might be able to tell. Most of my jokes are about biscuits, aren’t they? I maintain forever and always that a good biscuit joke sets most people at ease and, an additional benefit, encourages them to think more about biscuits.

Lately I’ve been wondering whether my relationship to food is as healthy as it could be. My goodness, food and I are complex, intertwined, weirdly co-dependent creatures. Here are a few things that are true for me (are any of them true for you too?):

***

I am northern. My cooking tends to be on the heavy, meat-and-potatoes side of things. I like meat and potatoes best when it’s in a pie. DO NOT EVEN GET ME STARTED ON PIE.

I do not smoke, drink or take drugs, but I use chocolate ice cream in a way that resembles all of these things.

I like good food, whole food, expensive food…and down-and-dirty food, greasy food, delivered-to-your-door-in-a-damp-paper-bag food. I eat unhealthily often, and gleefully, but with a sad sense of grossness afterwards.

I tried counting calories once, and it bored the freaking pants off me. I would never, ever consider giving up dairy, wheat or meat unless I were actually dying. I mean, CHEESE.

I come from a family where our genes run small and skinny. I have a vastly skewed sense of ‘normal’ size and weight as a result. I place far, far too much emphasis on how much I weigh, rather than how I feel. If you ever asked me my weight, I could tell you and the number would be accurate to within 48 hours.

I would rather spend money eating out at a restaurant than buying almost anything else.

I don’t enjoy being pregnant, and I think maybe one of the reasons is that my body shape is out of my own control.

I often go days or weeks between fizzy drinks, but I have to close my eyes in intense appreciation after the first gulp of cold Coke. Every time.

I use food as reward and emotional salve: the times I’m eating for other reasons – exhaustion, boredom, stress, sadness – far outnumber the times I’m eating because I’m hungry. And by the way I talk about it (‘will some fruit snacks make you feel better?’), I think I encourage my children to do the same.

***

Doesn’t that make me sound seriously unbalanced? I’m not, I promise. But this is hard: food is energy and health and a delight in its own right, a bringer-together of families and friends, delicious in its earthiness and physicality. You should love it, we say, but not the bad parts and not too much and not in a weird way. There has to be a line you can walk between ‘I like to eat’ and ‘I am unhealthily dependent on liking to eat, and use it to propel myself emotionally through the day’. I want to find that line. I think it would do me some good.

So I’ve been trying to make some changes around here – not so much in what we’re eating, but in how we eat it. These are not refined theories at all, and I’m really just feeling my way to some better habits. What do you think?

one,

I’m trying to be a little more aware of why I’m opening the  kitchen cupboard, and organising the continual grazing into structured meals and snack times. Ben & Jerry’s after the boys go to bed and before I start work? Reasonable. Ben & Jerry’s at 9.30am because drying my hair took less time than expected? Unreasonable.

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two,

I’m trying to eliminate the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ eating (adults talking about ‘naughty’ food is a cringey bug-bear of mine), and consider instead what my body might need to take in, and how much it needs before it’s full. I can appreciate the iron in our beef lasagne and the vitamins in my salad…while also accepting that sometimes a whacking great burger and fries is exactly what I need, because it tastes nice and I enjoy it.

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three,

I’m trying to make our daily family meals more of an event, particularly dinner time. Flowers, place mats, fancy napkins and serving bowls, little side dishes to round out the main course…we usually saved these for guests, but why should we? I am a big believer in forging our family links around a dinner table. This is where the boys learn to talk about their day and listen to someone else’s. They need patience and social graces to make it through a meal. And I’ve noticed that when I make it feel a little more fancy, Henry is more excited to be there, and more inclined to raise his game.

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four,

I’m trying not to make quite so many jokes about biscuits. KIDDING, AS IF I WOULD EVER.

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I ate Ben & Jerry’s while writing this, and I can’t decide whether this is ironic or whether ice cream and blogging is a perfectly reasonable combination. But here’s to food in its proper place: on our plates, in our bellies, making us happy but not, somehow, needing to. I’ll clink our cheeseburgers together to that.

Why I’ll be sending my kids to camp

I’ve just got back from girls’ camp – well, not just: I’ve been back long enough to sleep for a couple of hours, to unpack all my moss-covered, grease-covered things, and to realise I’ll be doing a full-body cringe for the rest of this week while my fiery sunburn dies down. I’ve only been involved in a few camp activities this year, but the feeling is always the same, and it made me think of this post I wrote the last time I was there.

Here’s to helping our girls feel their bright, brilliant, ferocious worth, right to the ends of their muddy fingers. 

the penguins say –

that August is a month worth camping in.

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Yesterday I came back from girls’ camp. Forty-eight teenage girls, thirty-ish adults, twenty-seven million clumps of knee-high, prickly grass. It’s been a long, hard, exhilarating week we’ve been planning obsessively all year. I’ve sat in a smelly marquee eating dinner from a tin plate, sung ridiculous songs in the heat of a campfire, listened and talked and run around like a lunatic, and all of it surrounded by talking, shrieking, singing, laughing girls.

I think there must be nothing on earth like this. I watched them arrive on Monday morning and wanted to reach out for them because I remembered being in their place – impatient, self-conscious, unsure of myself, my place in life, my body. Making decisions that would affect the rest of my life and frightened to death of doing it wrong. I wanted so much and didn’t know how to get it. What do they hear from the adult world we inhabit, these girls? You must be beautiful. You must be popular. Don’t be stupid and don’t be clever. Be funny. Be skinny. Wear this. Take this off for the camera. There, now you’re something. They see a hard, bright world of boxes we created for them to fit in, and they’re lost in it. How could we do it to them? How could we?

We spent last week making spaces to tell them something different. You are something, and somebody, and valued on your own terms. You have potential. You can make decisions that bring you self-respect. You are a daughter of God, and there is so much happiness ahead of you. Not one of you, not ever, needs to be lost.

As I sat with these girls, I knew I’d be entrusting my children to them in fifteen years or so. I want my boy, my girls and boys to come, my girls yet unthought-of, to know the truth: that they are worth more than their skin, that their destiny is their own, that they are loved more than they can comprehend. I do not want them lost. So I’ll be sending them to camp.

Small parks

Photo 25-06-2014 10 44 31 am

We drove back towards town and I told them we’d find a playground. Nursery visits are necessary things, but not much fun for either of them: look at all these children and new toys! Nah, just kidding, let’s go. We’ve been doing it all week, and we’ve still got some to go, and we’re tired.

I told them we’d find a playground, and thought again about certainties. This has been a bruising week, dear friends: the sort of week where I drink too much vanilla Coke and stay up far too late in internet trivialities, because getting my mind to settle in one place for sleep is too ambitious. We are on the springboard of some change. Change I can handle, but I can’t stand not knowing what type of change it will be. I think a lot about being a thirty-year-old woman. I think a lot about being a person of faith and about what that means, about having boys and raising them well. I think about how I can possibly get a legal copy of Life on Mars now the unmentionables at Netflix have taken it away from me (WHY WHY WHY). I would also like to know where we will live, where Henry will go to nursery and roughly what my life will look like in the near future. I keep thinking self-pitying things like ‘that doesn’t seem like too much to ask’, like people don’t spend their whole lives grappling with stuff like this and worse.

I thought again about certainties, because I cannot breathe for grey area, muddy waters, out-of-focus plans. So we drove down a leafy road that might-or-might-not be our new home turf, and I looked for a playground. I don’t know where the playgrounds are around here yet. I couldn’t find one.

Do children crave certainties too, with the same kind of need? Yes, I think so. But smaller ones. Henry’s favourite question at the moment is ‘Mama, what-a we do now?’ I give him a list of our next four actions, but only four. That’s as far ahead as he can make himself see. Teddy’s absolutes are smaller still: the presence of one of his three best people, and a good clear floor.

Some colourful bars flashed in my peripheral vision, and I pulled the car around. We couldn’t see it properly till we’d piled into the pushchair, crossed the road and opened a green gate set into the high hedge. But there it was, a playground. Squeaky clean and deserted, mostly hidden from the street. It was small but brightly coloured and thoughtfully planned. The grass was clean and warm. I let them roam happily around, unworried for once about broken glass or broken bones. And for half an hour we were enclosed and safe in a green space that held, for the moment, everything we needed. I couldn’t see any further than the high hedge, and just now I didn’t want to. The restfulness and relief of it nearly knocked me over.

‘Survey large fields’, someone once told me. ‘Cultivate small ones’. Well, I don’t get out much in fields.

‘Adventure in large playgrounds’, I would say back, nodding all sagely. ‘But keep your heart in small ones’.

Photo 25-06-2014 10 55 17 am

Perfect fifth

Teddy was born with his feet splayed outwards, and immediately proved me a liar.

I’m the sort of person who tells stories because they feel true, and then afterwards realises they’re not true at all. Here’s one of my accidentally invented stories: my feet point outwards because I spent my childhood in ballet class. Not true, since I got it from my dad, and have now passed it on to the chubby feet of the bear. Here’s another: I was given the choice of ballet lessons and horse riding lessons, and chose ballet because I didn’t want bandy legs. Then ballet gave me bandy legs anyway. Ho ho!

This one definitely isn’t true, because I started dance lessons when I was three. It’s one of my first memories, in fact: I have hazy flashes – real, I think – of a classroom at the top of a fire escape, and looking down at my own ballet-shoe-clad feet. I started ballet because my mother always wanted to and was never allowed, so she went along to her friend’s lessons and watched mournfully from the sidelines. Ask her and she’ll tell you about it. It’s a very sad story.

So I have Susan’s 1960s dance lessons to thank for mine, all thirteen years of them, and in every stripe and shade. Ballet, of course. Modern dance. Tap. Theatrecraft, which I remember as floating soulfully about in a long skirt (I have just learned that it’s supposed to be Broadway-style dancing, and now I feel cheated, because AMAZING). Pointe work, when we were old enough to have our feet hammered once a week. I was determinedly average at all of it, but by heckers I had a perfect fifth position. My feet faced so far outwards anyway that I only had to try a little bit to make them fit horizontally like a subway sandwich. In ballet, I decided, weird feet are good. I milked it for all it was worth.

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It was all I had to milk, really, because while I loved the dancing, I was too self-conscious to stand out on stage. The girls who had private lessons, who were entered into competitions, flung their arms out and beamed into the faceless audience. You’re supposed to dance without inhibitions, and my inhibitions squatted under my skin, sitting on my voice box when I tried to make conversation with the other girls who all knew each other from the school I didn’t go to.

One year we wore outrageous ‘tropical’ outfits – shiny orange-and-pink frills in crackly fabric – and danced in our Christmas show to the Test Match Cricket theme tune. I don’t know whether it was the bouncy moves or the music or the outfit, but suddenly I was possessed with the wild spirit of the Competition Girls. I leaped around and smiled and danced my little heart out, danced like a nine-year-old with nothing to lose, danced like someone who wasn’t a walking fire hazard in glittery polyester. It was exhilarating, and they noticed. Someone apparently asked ‘who is that girl?’, and my dance teacher spoke to my parents after the show about private lessons. The C-word was mentioned. I genuinely think it might have been one of the happiest evenings of my little life, floating home in a cloud of hairspray, dizzy with chosenness and possibility.

The competitions never came to anything much, but as I got into my middle teens I started to own my perfect fifth position. I still had to force myself through the door, but once inside there was a kind of fierce satisfaction that came with dancing free. Sometimes, when I caught the wind just right, the music would lift my arms and legs by itself and I would move exactly the way I wanted to. Our group was smaller now, and kinder, more used to each other. As the only one still being stubbornly ignored by the puberty gods, I never had to worry about excessive jiggling in my unsupportive lycra, and I was always the one getting flung into the air to the accompaniment of REM. The year we did Britney Spears, my goodness. One girl’s gym skirt popped off mid-performance, the button sailing over the heads of the startled third row, but aside from that, we were flawless.

It didn’t last. Once my exams started hotting up, my enthusiasm for spending long evenings at the Methodist hall twice a week cooled off. One day I just stopped going, without saying anything or saying goodbye. It was the least courageous thing I could’ve done, fading out as though thirteen years of demi-plié hadn’t done anything for me. It had, and I still feel guilty about it. I wish I’d told them that I’d be holding my wrists just right for the rest of my life, that I would keep my pointe shoes satiny and perfect in every house I lived, that I’d watch High School Musical with a catch in my throat, that just occasionally I’d dance out old dreams, my mother’s and mine, with the enthusiastic abandon of someone wearing neon polyester and a bun hairsprayed into a helmet.

If my children want to dance, I’d like them to try. I will tell them that if you want to – and you have to want to – you can put on fearlessness like a second skin. I will tell them that a good place to start is their inherited, dorky, perfect fifth.

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