Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Back to school...but what about the parents?

The emboldened threat in the shop window displays of the past six weeks has finally come true.  As of yesterday, we are indeed 'Back to school'.

One of my little 'uns couldn't wait to get back; the other was somewhat cautious.  As for me?  I always feel slightly bereft at the end of summer, however I've come to the conclusion that a new academic year represents a great time to make a fresh start for both children and parents.

Many parents take up new work opportunities that coincide with their offspring starting school, or perhaps with them reaching a milestone where all parties are happy with mum (or dad) being away from home more.  

In that sense, it's down to timing.  As children spread their wings, so can parents - and lots do.  New endeavours need not be confined to work-related activities.  Over the last 24 hours, I've lost count of the face-to-face conversations and Facebook posts surrounding new courses, fitness classes and events that parents are planning to undertake. Good on 'em I say! I reckon that late summer is a far better time for fresh challenges than New Year, when all we really want to do is climb under the duvet rather than make resolutions. (Or perhaps that's just me?)

In my average little household, the start of a new term usually features some form of family discussion about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the kiddos.  I'm not sure if my advice reflects that of approved parenting manuals but it tends to run along the following lines:  'Seize all the new experiences that you can. It doesn't matter one jot whether you are the best or worst in the class. Just do your best and - most importantly - have fun in the process.'

As happens so often nowadays, the attitude I expected my children to adopt made me take a long, hard look at my own.  When was the last time I tried something new? Something that was a little outwith my comfort zone? Something that I was doing purely for the experience of trying something different rather than for immediate gratification, like taking on a project to earn extra money or cooking a dish to be devoured that evening?

Awkward pause.

At the end of our holidays, we were lucky enough to enjoy some of Edinburgh's festival activities.  One of my personal highlights was a family event as part of the Book Festival, which was led by Horrible Histories' illustrator, Martin Brown.  He started his very entertaining session by making us a promise:  By the time we left we would either feel that we could draw better, or we'd feel better about our perceived lack of drawing skills.  And do you know what? I reckon he achieved his aim.  My two immediately picked up sketchpads and pencils after grabbing themselves a bench in Charlotte Square gardens.  Me, I was left pondering some of his more challenging questions: Why do we stop doing things that we enjoy just because we think we're not "doing it right?"  Who decides what is wrong or right or good or bad anyway?

On our way home from Edinburgh, with less than 24 hours to go until the first bell rang to mark the new school year, we stopped at IKEA.  I bought myself a sewing machine. (Not very rock 'n' roll but bear with me.) I've always been convinced that I can't sew since my first disastrous tuition in primary school. But I've always secretly wanted to.

And do you know what? This year I'm ruddy well going to learn...

Have you got any exciting plans of your own for the new academic year? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Sunday, 3 August 2014

Learning to dance in the rain...

It had been one of those weeks.  

All was not particularly happy at Average Towers.  A couple of bad parenting judgements.  A difficult anniversary to get through. Loved ones grappling with thorny issues that I was unable to help with but persisted in fretting over.

Too many days had been spent sitting indoors hunched over a laptop.  Both brain and body had become sluggish. My relaxed skinny jeans felt anything but.

As the week plodded on, the Scottish weather decided to come out in sympathy.  It was early evening as the four of us drove through the city and, in the words of Winnie the Pooh, the rain rain rain came down down down.

I looked out of the car window bleakly, wondering if I might muster up some negative remark about the conditions.  And then I noticed two things that stopped me in my tracks.  A female runner on the pavement was striding out at full pace, soaked to the skin and beaming.  A bike with a wicker basket was propped up against the gate of a cottage at the road side.  These seemingly everyday sights oozed optimism. There were at least two people in this city who weren't letting the weather get them down.

Which brings me slowly to my point.  We all have to deal with blips and upsets - and not just in terms of the weather.  No matter how idyllic others' lifestyles might seem on social media, everyone has their crosses to bear and their rough patches to cope with.

And so I reached a bit of a crossroads.  It had been a pants week but I could feel sorry for myself and hope for a miracle, or get a grip and deal with it.  And so I did (and I still am).  I found the strength to have some important conversations; I knuckled down and cleared out some of the physical and emotional clutter. And I forced myself out into the fresh air because exercise and the great outdoors are fantastic weapons against malaise.  I also reminded myself to look outward rather than inward.  Compared to those suffering in war-torn countries my life is a dream come true.

The whole scenario - and the onset of our traditional Scottish summertime weather - brought to mind one of my favourite sayings.  (I'm sure you'll have heard it before as it's plastered over many a canvas and pinterest board.)

"Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass.  It's about learning to dance in the rain."

I still consider myself a novice but the rain dancing lessons are well underway.

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Friday, 25 July 2014

The tiny things that tip you over the edge...

Maybe it's because it's the school holidays.  Maybe it's the heat (though please don't go away quite yet Scottish sunshine). Maybe it's because I'm working from home more.  Whatever the reason, my tolerance levels are eroding fast and it would seem that I'm not the only one...

In recent conversations with friends who also happen to be mums, we agree that it's often not the big misdemeanours that cause us to lose it.  Instead it's the cumulative effect of all the little ones - especially those petty crimes for which my own two are convicted repeat offenders.

So, while I still have the dregs of a sense of humour, I give you the top five countdown of parenting nerve-shredders here at Average Towers...

1. The pile at the bottom of the stairs

These items are at the bottom of the stairs for a reason.  Because they need taken up.  It's highly unlikely that any of them belong to you.  You have perhaps even performed an act of kindness by placing them there neatly on behalf of whichever junior member of the family they do belong to.  Will they be dutifully carried to their rightful place next time a barefoot child darts up the stairs? Will they heck.  If you don't do anything, by the end of the week this pile will have formed the foundation blocks of a precarious tower of similar items. All of which your offspring will continue to ignore.

2. The open doors

Summer's arrived.  For three consecutive days it has been warm in our little patch of the north-east of Scotland. I love the heat.  So do my children. (It's something of a novelty round here.) They love being outdoors.  And running back in again. And being outdoors.  And running back in again.  The soundtrack of my summer beats to a percussion of slamming doors.  Because no-one ever shuts the dratted things.  I mean - why would you? Breeze? What breeze?

3. What's for tea?

It's bad enough hearing this question on the way home from school.  It's even worse when it comes during the lunchtime clear-up.  What's more, it's the small person who eats the least and who is - ahem - selective about her food who always needs to know.  (I guess it's useful to gauge which level of rejection she will require for tonight's dish.)  Attempts to pre-empt this query by writing up tonight's menu on our kitchen blackboard have not helped - other than to provoke advance protests/sulks.

4. Problems, not solutions

Even as I write, I'm aware that the blame for this one may lie squarely at my feet. "I'm hungry/thirsty/too hot/too cold/can't find my hoodie/sunglasses/library book."  Repeat to fade. Captain Mum, it would seem, is expected to spring to the rescue.  Were my children pre-school age, I like to think I'd be a little more understanding.  At ten and eight, however, the novelty of responding calmly with: "Have a drink of water/piece of fruit/where did you last see it?" is beginning to wear off.  One day, I keep telling myself, they'll solve their own mini dilemmas. Ideally before I'm drawing my pension.

5. The unchanged loo roll

I think I can just leave it there, can't I? After a long hot day dealing with 1-4, the discovery of that innocuous little grey cardboard roll can push you over the brink.  While the rest of the family looks on in horror at your disproportionate and seemingly insane reaction.

But we know the truth, don't we ladies?

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The author would like to point out that she does still possess a sense of perspective.  It's just been temporarily misplaced for the duration of the school holidays.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Holidaying across the generations: Reporting back

My previous post 'Holidaying across the generations' was all about our forthcoming holiday.  It was to be our first week away with both our children and my mum.

Said holiday has now been and gone. I feel, therefore, that it is only fair to report back on how it all went...

I'll spare you from my rusty 'just getting back in the blogging saddle' writing by keeping my thoughts short and to the point:

Holiday highs: Scottish sunshine (a major and unexpected plus); long coastal walks; rock-pooling; self-catering accommodation that surpassed expectations; dining al fresco; tennis tournaments; harbour cafes; evening strolls; leisurely bike runs; views to die for.  My ultimate high - and perhaps the one most closely associated with three generations holidaying together - was the flexibility of this new family arrangement.  The kids bonded with their grandmother.  My mum and I chatted about some of the important stuff we never normally get around to.  Hubby and I squeezed in small but invaluable pockets of time to ourselves without the children.  Having another adult around gave us extra wriggle room. If everyone didn't want to head out to the park, they didn't have to.  We simply broke off into our preferred clusters, then regrouped later with fresh enthusiasm.

Family holidays: Not all plain sailing

And, in the interests of balance...

Holiday lows: Fresh-on-the-scene tween strops; summer colds (all of us); nasty fall from tree rope swing (youngest); tennis induced twisted ankle (me); hayfever sufferers x two (hubby and youngest); two very similar females who both like to be in control (no need to explain who);  small people who, exhausted after the end of term, decided it was their divine right to do as little as possible to help out or tidy up after themselves.

So, would we do it all again? We sure would.  I think the highs definitely outweigh the lows.  To be fair, the weather and our accommodation ensured that we had the ideal conditions for family harmony.  That said, I think both children and adults learned valuable lessons during the week about compromise, biting one's tongue and mucking in.  I'm still plugging away with the kids on that last one though. Perhaps I'll have nailed it by the time they leave home?

Happy holidays, wherever you are and whatever you're up to. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

Holidaying across the generations

In my last post 'Here comes Summer...' I wrote about my attempts to get organised for the long summer break that lies ahead.

This time round, I'm homing in on the actual 'holiday' part of our six weeks off. It's going to be a holiday with a difference because it's not just us.  Having dipped our toe in the water with an extended family 'mini break' earlier this year, my mum has agreed to join us for our time away.

Since this situation is new to us - and since summer holidays are sacred for all of us - we've thought this through pretty carefully.  And I've listened intently to the advice of others who've already trodden this path.

Here's how we're hoping to achieve a successful summer together:

Start small - We're not all going to Hawaii for three weeks.  Instead we're driving a few hours down the road to the East Neuk of Fife.  And we're staying for a week.  Even if we did have the budget for a long-haul trip of a lifetime, I think our first shot at holidaying together should be reasonably short in duration with manageable travel times.

Happy husbands - She's my mum but she's Mr Average's mum-in-law.  And we all know that there's a difference.  I've checked, double-checked and checked again that he's happy with this arrangement. We also have a safety net in the form of a second week off afterwards for just the four of us. Because it's his holiday too and I know he really needs it. 

Consider costs - If he (or she) who pays the piper calls the tune, others may be resentful at having their holiday plans dictated to them.  Instead, divvy up the costs in a way that seems fair and no-one will feel beholden to anyone else.

Sensible space - The budget may not have stretched to Hawaii but we've made sure that it's stretched to renting a decent-sized property. This means that we won't all be living on top of one another.  I have high hopes that, even with children in tow, the adults will be able to recharge our batteries a little thanks to the comfortable space that we've organised.

Time apart - I'm lucky. My mum is one independent lady.  She excels at sussing out bus timetables, local markets and golf courses.  Because although she loves us all, she may not want to spend an entire day rock-pooling with the grandkids. And we get that, we really do.  (Between you and me, I think Mr Average may be slightly jealous.  Particularly when it comes to the golf courses.)

Not-so-great expectations - The children will whine. And be bad-mannered. My mum will be shocked. I will be stressed. It will all go horribly wrong.  STOP!!!! We've already had this conversation. The children will whine and be bad-mannered. My mum knows this.  She'll understand. And she won't blame me.  (I hope!)

Exit route - This is going to sound utterly pessimistic. I try to think of it as pragmatic instead. If the worst really does come to the worst - if it pours down rain every day and everyone argues constantly - we're relatively close to home.  We accept defeat, pack up and head north.  I desperately hope that this doesn't happen.  But I think there's a comfort in knowing that we have an exit route if need be.

Now we couldn't do that if we'd gone to Hawaii....

How do you handle holidaying across the generations? Any tips or hints? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Friday, 13 June 2014

Here comes Summer....But are you ready for it?

Here in my little corner of north-east Scotland, we're hurtling towards the school holidays at a breathtaking rate.

Some of my friends regard the school holidays with delight, others with despair.  I think I'm somewhere in the middle.  One thing I have learned over the years, however, is that pretending they're not just around the corner, or deciding to 'wing it', does not make for a stress-free six weeks.

And so we (groan) come to one of my familiar topics: Planning.  Notebooks at the ready people, I feel some lists coming on....

The escape from it all

I tend to start with the nice bit.  Block off that precious two weeks when the whole family is going to be together - hopefully somewhere different from home.  (Not that I don't love my home but a change of scene works wonders for all of us.) This year we're holidaying in the East Neuk of bonny Scotland and hoping fervently for the same sunshine that blessed us last year in Arran.

The tag team

The next thing I do is work out how Mr Average and myself can juggle the childcare during the remaining weeks of the holidays.  As he often works weekends with days off during the week - and I'm self-employed - there's a certain flexibility to our schedules that means we can cover most, but not all, of the childcare between us.  Which brings me to....

The supporting cast

It might be grandparents. It might be friends with whom you can exchange favours. Or it might be a formal childcare scheme.  Regardless, with just a few weeks to go until school's out for summer, these are the people you need to speak to now.  For my little family, it'll be a combination of all three.  (Our local out of school club summer holiday programme is sitting reproachfully on the top of my filing *system* as I type. I really, really need to fill that in. Today if possible.)

The fill-in fun

I'm a great believer that children need some free time to amuse themselves, however there is a balance to be struck. Summer holidays present a great opportunity for them to try new activities, catch up with friends and relatives and visit local places of interest (I love being a tourist in my own area!).

Here's what I'll be doing to prepare for some of the days that I'm in charge of the little 'uns but we're not officially 'away':

Grab a guide - My nearest city - Aberdeen - produces a wonderful guide to events for children and young people over the Summer. It includes sporting and creative ideas galore, including many free workshops and play sessions at art galleries and parks. Publications such as Raring2Go! magazine are usually stuffed with ideas and I try to follow useful Facebook pages too. (Local peeps should try Aberdeen for Kids and Aberdeen Inspired.  I've mentioned the Aberdeen for Kids page before but it's worth another shout-out here.)

Swap schedules - Now's the time for swapping mobile numbers with the parents of your kids' best friends - and for checking who's free for catch-ups when.  Of course you might not remember everyone's exact schedule but plant the seed now and others will feel comfortable contacting you when they're at a loose end too.

Whatever the weather - Here's where my control freak tendencies come into play.  Given our location, I usually draft up two lists (there's that word again) of potential activities - a wet weather list and a dry weather list. I like to think that I'll remember all those brilliant places that people have recommended to me.  In reality, if it's not written down, I probably won't.

Ask them - As in the kids.  It sounds risky but go ahead and ask them what they'd really like to do during the school holidays. You might just find they surprise you.  We spent a happy (if messy) half hour with an A3 sheet of paper and some coloured pens having a wee brainstorm about all the things the kids want to try - or repeat - but don't have much time for during the school term.  My eldest used the aforementioned Aberdeen guide for inspiration.  They both understand that we can't do everything but I have a clearer idea of their interests instead of choosing what I *think* they'd like to do.

And guess what? Turns out that mum doesn't always know best (shhhhh)...

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Friday, 6 June 2014

Something to believe in

In my last post 'Health, happiness and a remarkable teenager', I wrote about the importance of taking on board the incredibly wise and brave words of 19-year-old Steven Sutton who recently lost his battle with bowel cancer.

The sentiments discussed in this post have remained at the forefront of my mind over the past week.  In just over two weeks I will participate in my local Race for Life event for the third consecutive year. My daughter will run with me for the second year in a row.

Two years ago I ran with the fresh image of my father in a high dependency ward, having just had surgery to remove a cancerous growth. Last year I ran with hope for him - albeit a hope so fragile that I was scared to examine it too closely.  This year that glimmer of hope is in tatters. My very dear dad is no longer with us. But I continue to hope for all the others who are fighting this terrible disease.

My reasons for participating in Race for Life are therefore pretty obvious.  And I believe that most of us who have a cause that we are passionate about, and raise funds for, have a painful and personal story that accompanies it.

The verses below explain more than anything else why I'm committed to my cause.  Written in one of the many long dark sleepless nights following my father's death, they capture how I felt about my family's experience of suffering, illness and loss. I'm not sharing them to make other people sad.  And I'm not sharing them as a precursor to a fundraising plea.  I'm sharing them to urge you to all continue to fight for your cause.

It's easy to feel helpless in the face of some of the terrible diseases and conditions that our loved ones encounter.  But I firmly believe that our individual efforts really can make a huge collective difference.

As I line up to run on Sunday, 22 June I may no longer have the glimmer of hope for my own beloved parent. I do still have hope, though. In the supportive company of thousands of other women, many of whom will be fighting their own personal battles, it's impossible to feel anything less.

On a carefree Scottish summer day you tiptoed through our door
Back then we had no inkling of the pain that lay in store

You crept into our family and slowly took a hold
The horror of your presence would gradually unfold

When we knew that you’d arrived, a plan was put in place
It seemed that we would have to stare our worst fears in the face

The surgeons tried their very best to stop your grim assault
Despite their finest efforts, there was to be no halt

Then there followed treatment with more suffering on the side
Over time we realised that there was nowhere to hide

And as our options dwindled, your cruel strength grew and grew
As you callously invaded the loved one who we knew

He put up fierce resistance and fought on with all his might
But you were quite determined that you would win this fight

And so your ghastly presence was felt more and more each day
While we all looked on helplessly as you stole him away

Your mission is accomplished and our beloved one is gone
But our quest to find a cure for others goes on and on and on.

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Prose for Thought