Remaining here (or, Dorothy Parker and the art of the inspirational quote)

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,A

I don’t think that Dorothy Parker did inspirational quotes, but if she did, they probably would have been the best inspirational quotes in the world.

Actually, I’m pretty sure she didn’t do them. I don’t think she paused mid-quip at the Algonquin, cigarette and bon mot held languidly in check, to gaze into the middle distance and murmur something sweetly significant about the importance of believing in oneself.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that I’m not a fan of inspirational quotes. There are plenty of times when a well-phrased kick up the arse serves to remind me of my good fortune – sometimes even when I come across it on Facebook (the phrase, not the arse, that is). What I am not so keen on is the daily stream of exhortations, carefully scripted in a beautiful font against the uplifting backdrop of a mountain or a sunset or a kitten nestled into the side of an alligator. I’m not so keen on the fact that they tend to come from the same people. I’m not keen at all on the idea that those people quite clearly see themselves as some kind of work in progress.

Here’s the thing. I am a fully grown woman. I am an adult, not some pupa or cocoon biding my time till I turn into a beautiful butterfly. Just as there is no “thin girl” inside me waiting to burst out, so my curmudgeonly contented self does not harbour a shiny-souled being desperate to reach the surface to beam on all she beholds. I am the sum total of almost forty years of life; I have a personality shaped by the people I’ve known (and been), the thoughts I’ve had, the experiences I’ve lived through. I am as likely to wake up one morning with an unquenchable zest to conquer the world as I am to suddenly become a petite brunette.

Perhaps it’s just a sign of age. Perhaps it’s natural to reach a point where malleability of character seems as fantastical a concept as happily ever after. Perhaps all these quotes fulfil a deep urge which in earlier ages would have been met with the hope of eternal redemption, a life after death for those who’ve picked up enough bonus points on their journey through this one – or, after all, perhaps there’s an argument that it’s better to work on reshaping ones inner, rather than outer, self.

Whether a spiritual or literal diet, though, it just seems a recipe for endless, unsettling discomfort. I never liked weighing out portions of pasta and measuring cubes of cheese. I don’t want to get into calibrating my contentment, charting my progress along the path of becoming a Better Person. I couldn’t change my metabolic rate with a positive mental attitude and I’m not at all sure that I can make a significant difference in who I really am with it either.

So do I think we should just trudge along, eyes in the gutter, ignoring the stars above? Of course not. There are plenty of things about myself I don’t like, lots of habits I know I need to curb, tendencies I try to resist. But at the same time, I quite like the idea of acknowledging where I stand; of owning who I am; of growing old(er) as me, not fretting till the last minutes of my life about what unrealised version of myself lay dormant inside. I’m not Marie of Romania. That’s her job.

As Dorothy Parker never said: extemporanea happens. The best we can do is to try to and sing along with the song.

And if that’s not worthy of an inspirational font and a sunset, I don’t know what is.

Back to work?

I will warn you in advance that this is self-indulgent, subjective  twaddle about me, me, me, with barely any attempt at drawing any meaningful conclusions. Hey, it’s my blog. 

I wrote last week about my love of autumn. I didn’t write about my love of the children going back to school. It’s not that I don’t love having them at home; more that I enjoy the structure and routine of the week when we have to be up and out of the house at a certain time of the day, and the sudden break in needing to intervene in sibling tussles.

I also love autumn because to me, as to many, it symbolises a new start. And this year, that’s what I’m trying to ensure I manage. My youngest is now at the school nursery. I drop three uniformed children off in the morning and am home again by 9am, with two and a half hours to myself. I wound up my freelance work earlier in the year, and after many false starts over the last couple of years (the starts in themselves not false, the circumstances beyond my control which put an end to them not false either, but more-or-less horrible) I really, really want a job.

Even typing this, I feel faintly grubby and ashamed, but I am bored. Having had five years at home to concentrate on my children has been an amazing gift, and was the right decision, but I have had to confront the truth that I need to get back to something else. Writing I love, but the novel that is buzzing round in my head is not happening on the page, and I suspect part of that is due to a residual sense of guilt and feeling of uselessness.

Do I agree that a person’s self-worth and value is tied up in what they do for a living? I say no, but, deep down, I think I do. I am tired of the “what do you do all day?” – from others, and from myself, even when I know the answer. The privilege of my education and training is always there in the back of my mind; the use that I’m making of both, at present, forces me to be honest with myself and admit that I’m not. I’m lonely, too: Twitter has been a lifesaver for me over the past few years, but although I enjoy my own company and the solitude of a quiet house, I’m starting to sense a need to work within a team at least part of the time. There’s also the external structure of “employment” as opposed to self-employment – again a bonus for someone who can always find something important that needs doing (or reading) first.

Will anyone have me? I’ve been scouring job pages for a while, now, trying to match what I can offer with what I want and need from a job. I have no illusions about swanning back in at a particular level; there’s nothing that I’d consider beneath me, provided that it pays the childcare I’ll need in order to work. At the back of my mind is the knowledge that I am incredibly lucky in having a chance to perhaps make a choice about where I go from here, and the dim awareness that I should at least try to think strategically about where things could take me. I have had some encouraging feedback, but I know it’s a long road ahead, and – if I’m being honest – I’m terrified and spectacularly unconfident.

And then, of course, there are the children. My eldest two were at nursery from a few months old: long, long days in a setting which, although I tried not to think too much about it at the time, really wasn’t ideal. Since No1 started preschool, though, I’ve been here, at home – always there to take them in the morning, always there to collect them at the end of the day, always there when they’ve had a doctor’s appointment or been poorly or  during the holidays. They have lots of time at home around their schooldays, and, within the limits of cost and logistics, they enjoy after-school activities and playdates. My husband’s industry is almost exclusively male and notoriously family-unfriendly (something else to feel guilty about is that I have facilitated him not having ever to trouble his employers on account of his fatherhood, though he more than shares the burden when he’s at home). We have no family who can help out, and while there’s an option of wraparound at school, it has limitations, particularly for the older children – and fundamentally, they are perfectly happy as things stand.

Doubtless they would benefit in some ways from me working. We’d have more money, for a start. We are very fortunate in being able to manage as we do, but there’s not a lot for extras. They would see me using my brain and contributing financially to the household. But on balance? I can’t honestly convince myself that they’d be better off. It feels like I’m taking something of value away from them, out of principle or self-interest.

So there we have it. I warned you it was self-indulgent. Sooner or later, I will work again – I have to, even if just to keep myself in my old age. I always knew I would, even when I left work originally. I just didn’t expect to feel so….guilty.

Us v Them

I don’t follow Jason Manford on Facebook. I should say at this point that I have nothing against Jason Manford. In fact, some of my best friends follow him.

So it was that earlier today I saw the following status update, snorted and clicked “Like”.


It’s not a new sentiment, of course. It’s one I’ve shared many, many times myself – and meant it. But within moments of scrolling on through my timeline, I started to feel uneasy about what it actually meant.

I find it almost impossible to express my thoughts about the referendum on independence coming up next week. Not because I’m not Scottish: after all, that’s no prerequisite to voting. Not because I don’t live in Scotland at the moment, though I have in the past (and have always kind of hoped to again in the future). But because of those two factors, I have no vote. I don’t need to choose between the variously conflicting versions of truths and statistics, am not called on to painstakingly separate hope from fantasy, caution from fear. In short, it’s not my decision – and it’s not my place to opine, though I (along with the rest of us) will be affected by the fallout, whatever happens.

There have been endless metaphors about the potential separation of the United Kingdom. It struck me yesterday, though, that it feels to me, living in the North of England, rather like a beloved sibling leaving home. You squabble, of course. You fight over bathroom rights, who gets to watch the TV, who’s the favourite. Then suddenly, they have the prospect of taking off for a glamorous new job, though the details are vague and you’re afraid it might not all be it’s cut out to be. You’re jealous, of course, and you know that you’re likely to be grounded forever with your pocket money cut, but you’re worried too, even though you know it’s not really any of your business.

Leaving aside the arguments for and against independence, though, the tone of some of the debate is starting to bother me. I resent Westminster-centric policy and bias as much as anyone else who grew up outside of the rarified atmosphere of privilege which still seems a prerequisite for power in this country. I hate that my own region has so many obstacles to overcome to compete with the South East, I chafe, like the rest of my neighbours, at measures introduced to ease problems in London and its surrounds which cause or exacerbate the ills of where we live. There is a glaring inequality and imbalance in the UK, and the failure of any mainstream party to acknowledge and address this frustrates me intensely.

What I don’t believe, however, is that people are intrinsically better or worse – or, actually, that different depending on where they live or where they’re from.  It’s seductive to think that our personalities are shaped by our origins, that we “belong”, in some mystical, indistinct way to one particular area or group. But it’s dangerous too, especially when we fall into the easy trap of choosing the good bits for ourselves or those we identify with, while pinning the less desirable character traits onto a different, distinct, bunch.

I daresay there are people in London, who in all but speech and cultural reference are much more akin to those round here, or even further north, than to those who live scant miles away and make the decisions which govern us all. That a farmer in Cornwall has more in common with a shepherd in Cumbria than the townies who summer down the road or moved there permanently for a new life in the country. Increasingly, surely, we’re not where we’re from: we’re what we have, what we do, what we aspire to. That’s not something which can be defined or contained by borders, national or otherwise.

I don’t know what will happen next week. I don’t even know what I want to. I do hope that, whatever the outcome, more power is devolved to local regions around the UK so that decisions can be made much closer to those they affect. Even more than that, though, I hope (knowing that it is largely in vain) that we don’t start a march towards tribalisation in the guise of local pride. We’re better off recognising that almost all of us are “that lot” – and talking seriously about how to hold those who aren’t to account.

One in a million

I grew up in Newcastle. I grew up watching the Great North Run, if not in person, then on the TV. I’ve never run it, and I doubt I ever will, but it isn’t just the landmarks of my hometown that make it the world’s greatest marathon for me. It’s the people who take part.

There has never been a time when there hasn’t been a face to look for in the crowds. Never a year when I haven’t sponsored someone in my family, or my circle of friends, or a colleague. Never any September, sunny or pouring down with Geordie rain, that there’s not been a brightly coloured vest or daft costume among the hoards of others that hasn’t tugged a little bit more at my heart. 

Tomorrow, I’ll be watching it in the company of my little niece and nephew while their parents, my sister and brother-in-law, join the rest of the wobbly legs and dodgy stomachs on the start line. They’ll be lining up with my other members of our family, and friends, so many friends, all in their white vests, in memory of my wonderful cousin who died almost a year ago. 

The past twelve months have taught me much about grief and sudden loss that I wish I had never had to learn so close at hand. The pain and the bereavement are not mine to write about, but the forever-afterness of tragedy, even when the initial drama and shock have subsided, has been a hard-learned lesson in appreciating life.  Life in its tiny, everyday moments as well as its highlights; life in the people around, and the knowledge that nothing is certain to be tomorrow as it has been today. 

I don’t know if my brother, or sister, or cousins, or any of their team is the millionth ever Great North Runner, tucked away among tomorrow’s entrants. I don’t know how many millions of pounds will be raised by the 56 000 people covering just over 13 miles in their lycra and blisters and chaffed unmentionables. I don’t know how many names will be carried in their hearts; how many tears and heartaches and bitter nights lie behind the smiles and cheers and camaraderie en route. But I know that every step along the way is a promise to remember. A pledge to make a difference, whether for someone who needs that help, or in  memory of someone who no longer can. Every step is a tribute to love, and, despite everything, to hope.

Good luck to everyone who is running tomorrow, whatever your reasons for doing so. Even as you jostle together, thousands and thousands and thousands strong, you are all one in a million. 






The first audition of autumn

It is autumn. Officially, at least. We’re into September, the school holidays are almost over, the nights are drawing in.

I love autumn. It’s a relief, after the last few weeks of resentful shivering in sandals and short sleeves, to the muttered refrain of “but it’s AUGUST”, to be able finally to pull out boots and jumpers. There’s a comfort of sorts – or a certainty, at least – in knowing that the weather is only going to get worse. No more of the hoping-for-the-best, planning-for-the-worst, making-the-most-of-it of the summer months: rained off barbecues, sand-blasted beaches, hours huddled under trees watching puddles form round the swings. 

Autumn is the most orderly of seasons. It’s full of known quantities. Perhaps that’s why, together with the fresh-startness of the new school year, it feels like a good time for beginnings, despite the evidence of things drawing to a close outside.

It’s not that I live divorced from nature. There are fields at the end of my road, trees in my garden, and I have the best part of an hour’s school run on foot on which to feel the subtle wax and wane of the morning chill.

To my shame, none of these are why I truly know that summer is over and autumn is here. Instead, I know that this is the case because The X-Factor is back on TV.

There is nothing particularly autumnal about it, for all its wist and yelling fruitlessness. It not even that I love it, or that it has the status of a long-awaited treat. Its uniquely awful brand of brilliance is often unwatchable, even through wine, and more often than not I’ll have it on in the background while doing something else (usually trying to out-snark others on Twitter over that week’s most cringeworthy moment). 


It is more its briskly efficient arrival at the end of August, sweeping us all up from the shapeless haphazardness of summer and depositing us firmly into a reliable schedule of weekly dates till Christmas that gives it away. Just as school shepherds shiny-shoed children back through its gates, so do Messrs Cowell & co provide us with a useful structure and routine as we stare into the dull dank months of British winter ahead. For me, it works like a telescope. In early September, with my feet still smudged with the dirty remnants of a sandal tan, I can see the me who will be watching in December, haloed with fairy lights and the crushing consciousness of unfinished present shopping. As Christmas approaches and the last few sing for their lives (apparently), the flashbacks to their auditions, in vest tops and bare legs, remind me of the carefree summer me I’d like to think was there once.

Once term starts again, I know that time will run away from me. But The X-Factor promises to be by my side through the giddy slip of the year to its close, past pumpkins and pyrotechnics and poppies, till I’m delivered blinking and chastened into the bleak, bleached world of January and The Bridge. I know that Strictly Come Dancing fulfils much of the same need in many, and I do watch that too, but my commitment has been hampered by fearful years of seeing it through a haze of pyjama’ed small children attempting the cha-cha-cha too near to the fireplace. 

So, come Saturday, I’ll be tuning in again; phone in my hand, sound turned down, invisible bingo card ready to mark off the obligatory “journey”s, “dream”s and “means everything”s which we seasoned viewers know carry more or less equal weight to the singing. Resigned in the knowledge that three and a half months of my life are about to vanish as swiftly as the contestants’ fifteen minutes of fame.




How I chortled, after my third child was born, when I saw on a greetings card the changing approach of parents to their offspring’s welfare as the offspring increased in number. I’ve seen it since doing the rounds on Facebook, and though I can’t remember all of it, it went something like this.

Dropped dummy?

First child: pick dummy off floor in tissue, stow in ziploc bag in changing bag, take home and sterilise three times before allowing back near child. 

Second child: pick dummy off floor, wipe with tissue that may or may not already have been used for the clearing up of snot, hand back to child.

Third child: allow dog (possibly your own, but not necessarily) to find dummy, lick it clean and tussle with child for ongoing ownership. 

You get the idea. 

I think the Mumsnet boards have the best definition for that peculiar kind of obsessiveness which (rightly) afflicts most parents at first: the behaviour typical of the parents of the Precious First Born (PFB). We have to start off with high standards, because although the warming of cucumber sticks and the testing of bathwater with our noses may verge on the irrational, we’re wholly responsible for another human being for usually the first time in our lives, and setting strict boundaries is pretty much the only way we have to hold back the creeping terror. We, just as rightly, tend to relax the PFBness, whether more siblings come along or not, because – frankly – you can’t live in a state of DEFCON 1 for the rest of your life, though it still rears its head, of course, whenever the eldest does something new for the first time.

It struck me this morning, though, watching my youngest playing Minecraft with his big brother and sister, spawning wolves and incinerating zombies, that there is a little-known counterpart to the Precious First Born syndrome.

My youngest is a Delinquent Last Born.

When my eldest first went to pre-school, he had only ever watched CBeebies (I was a little uncertain about the effects of the adverts on Milkshake, may God forgive me). 

My youngest? He’s seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy and knows all six Star Wars films verbatim. 

As a rising-four-year-old, No1 loved all the books from our childhoods that we had remembered so fondly, and stayed within the age-appropriate shelves in the library. 

No3? On our last trip to the library bus, he came home with a photo book about the tanks of World War 2 and some Horrible Histories paperbacks with illustrations best described as “challenging”.

I carefully guarded my language around my first and second children. The strongest curse that would pass my lips in their presence was a vitriolic “Sugar”, if I was placed under extreme provocation. 

Eight years later? Well, with the hearing of a bat, No3 has picked up on the whispered playground swearwords brought home by his bother and sister and knows perfectly well when to bring them out for maximum effect. I am grateful to my eldest for his quick thinking in convincing him that the “c” word is “chorizo”. (The rest of us know it is, in fact – *c* *r* *a* *p*. That was an interesting teatime).

Music? I never quite got around to filling my infant children’s brains and ears with carefully chosen classical music, as I’d fondly thought I would, but their listening was fairly tightly controlled. My last born, however, has an excellent repertoire which stretches from Gangnam Style all the way through Katy Perry to Scissor Sisters. “Take your mama out” starts off sounding sweetlon the lips of a three year old, but loses something by the time you get to the bit about cheap champagne. Although, you know, it could have its advantages in years to come. 

So there you have it. Karma. I have the child I was worried that my eldest would befriend at school. A preteen in the body of a preschooler. A Delinquent Last Born. Dear parents of his classmates, who have yet to encounter a world beyond Topsy & Tim and the quiet times at soft play when the big children are all at school, I can only apologise in advance.


I’m not taking them off till you play me Atomic.



She’s been here for years, and it’s not often she feels lost anymore. Not many times, now, that she takes out the old maps that she learned by heart before she even arrived; or opens the old shoebox of mementoes and sighs, her thumb smoothing the crumpled tickets and the photos clipped from magazines when she first began to hope. 

She remembers the small, dull, jolt of recognition each time she first saw the landmarks for real. Always just the same as the photographs, and yet, nothing like. The light glared or was dim; the figures round the frame of the picture not cropped out but jostling and crowding and jarring. In those early days, feeling as though a layer of skin was missing all over, it was hard to realise that she was there at last. 

It’s no small thing, to emigrate. She wasn’t running from, but to; had dreamed of it for years, her pulse quickening when she saw a headline or heard a passing mention of over there. Watching, furtively, the programmes about those moving their lives to the other side of the world, torn between envy and incredulity. It took a long time for her to realise that she could do it too; could overcome the invisible, almost insurmountable, hurdle of making such a change.

Not that she could go straightaway. There were conversations about practicalities and finance. There were hours of research and planning. She narrowed it down to a city, a suburb; shortlisted estate agents and recruitment consultants and hooked up on internet forums with other new arrivals. She knew it wouldn’t all be about lying on the beach, but the beach would still be there behind it all: warm, golden, waiting at the end of the working day or at the weekend. 

The house was sold. The furniture, mostly, handed on. A few cases of books and belongings sealed up ready to ship and store. The tickets, finally, bought; not cheap, but an investment. She wasn’t emigrating for the chance to fly but flying was the only way she’d get there, though she’d never liked the thought of long-haul. 

The journey took the best part of a day and two seasons. She ate tasteless food, slept fitfully, stared unseeing at a TV screen with the colours all wrong. Sleepless, confused, spaced out, she stepped out of the plane into a summer evening having stepped into it in winter. She’d thought about what to wear, but her clothes were wrong, creased and sweaty, her eyes gritty and blinking behind the glasses she’d bought for this new self. Her throat and nose already swollen and scratchy from the germs in the recycled air onboard, the suitcase she’d packed to see her through the first weeks not there on the carousel in the terminal.

She lay ill, alone, for days in the hotel she’d booked in advance still wearing the clothes from the plane; the beach, when she found the strength to make it from bed to bathroom, a faint, unreal, smudge on the horizon between the roofs and walls around. The money she’d saved to enjoy a honeymoon all of her own before settling into a brand new everyday went on the extra nights and the room service and the endless calls dealing with the insurance company and the airport. 

Even the worst case of flu doesn’t last forever. Two weeks later she’d signed up for a lease on a flat, smaller and meaner than she’d wanted, but practical, and near the shop job she’d found to tide her over. The sun was shining and her colleagues talked about going to the beach but she didn’t like to ask if she could join them, and the people she’d met online had already splintered and shut into groups. She knew she was lucky to be there; she updated her Facebook with pictures of the blue sky and little screenshots from Google maps showing how close she was to the shore, but sat in her flat with the shades down trying to keep the heat out, she hated herself that she didn’t feel it and knew it was something she could never admit to. Within walking distance of the famous bay, under blazing sun, having reached her destination at last, how could she admit to how wrong it – she – felt?

She goes to the beach each morning, now; walks the short stretch to the sand with her dog before work. At weekends, in the evening, it’s second nature to go with the children: the well-rehearsed routine of sunsuits and hats and games a small, secret, part of the glee that she can. Only rarely does she stop to remember the days when the joy of it was further away than it ever was when she lived on the other side of the world. 

Rights and wrongs – birth, guilt and “failure”

This afternoon I saw this tweet, and, in replying, came here to find the piece I was sure I’d written on the subject in the past, only to find I never had- despite spending a huge amount of time talking and thinking about it all over the last few years.Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 16.23.01My first child was born by emergency caesarean. After a straightforward pregnancy, I went into labour spontaneously ten days after my due date and all went as planned till he was found to be presenting ear first. You don’t need to be an obstetrician to realise that that poses a problem, especially when the head to which that ear was attached turned out to be above the top percentile for size. We were lucky in that there was an operating theatre and staff on hand to allow him to exit via what the surgeon referred to as “the sunroof”.

Did I feel I had failed? Yes. Was that an entirely rational response? No, of course not.

Partly it was to do with the fact that I hadn’t altogether understood what was going on at the time. A debrief with the head of midwifery a few months later and a copy of my notes helped with that, and helped me rationalise that I hadn’t done anything “wrong”. I still was bothered enough about it, though, that I remember shaking uncontrollably when telling my birth story to an acquaintance almost 18 months later, shortly before my daughter was born. She was born by VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean), as was No3, three years later (this time at home).

Why did I want to go for a VBAC in each case, rather than an elective section, which would certainly have been an option? Had I been somehow brainwashed by advocates of a particular form of childbirth? Did I still feel that I had somehow messed up the first time round and wanted to make good? 

Quite possibly, yes, in part. The other way of looking at it, though, is that having read the evidence, vaginal birth (and ultimately home birth) in my circumstances seemed like a the best option. Not guaranteed safest. Not guaranteed risk free. But, on a balance of probabilities, likely to result in the optimum outcome for both my baby and myself. It wasn’t a blanket rejection of hospital or medicalised childbirth, or an attack on those who plumped for those options. It was, quite simply, nothing to do with any other birth than those two. 

Perhaps, too, there was a grain of good sense behind my disappointment about the first time. It’s possible to be grateful for the availability of medical intervention while regretting that it was necessary; possible to recognise that sometimes things weren’t as perfect as we would have liked while appreciating that we were fortunate that they weren’t much worse. I don’t think we do women any favours by devaluing their feelings of disappointment or equating them to selfishness or a lack of gratitude. Would so many women feel that they have “failed” to experience a perfect birth if they felt free to express their honest emotions about what happened? Moreover, there are valid reasons for caring how a baby is born: women know that certain outcomes carry risk both for their baby and how they will go on to mother.

Having a baby, especially our first, is definitive in many ways: the end of one era of selfhood and the beginning of another, in which we are no longer responsible for ourselves alone. No wonder that we struggle and feel conflicted if our experience of birth is not what we had hoped or expected, when we are encouraged to prepare, participate and – yes, make choices – beforehand, but are rebuked verbally or otherwise afterwards for caring about anything other than a healthy baby.

There’s another aspect, too. Women now are older when they give birth and, in general, may well be used to a degree of autonomy in their work and home lives denied to previous generations. We choose, by and large, to have our babies. Many women will do antenatal preparation and approach labour not as a patient but, at the very least, as a partner in the process. Does our system of maternity care, under financial pressure and with an eye eternally on the implications of the worst-case scenario, allow for a genuine mother-led partnership? I am not an expert, and perhaps it does – but I would argue that many times women feel, for whatever reason, that events and decisions in labour slip out of their control and that the psychological and emotional aftermath reflects that. 

Do women “choose” (or advocate) a particular form of childbirth as a statement or a status symbol? Here, I think it gets complicated. After my eldest was born, I found it very difficult to hear about “natural” birth. Preparing for a VBAC, reading some of the passionate views online, I did feel that there was a current of criticism of those who, like me, had birthed differently. It was a difficult choice to make, and, for a while, I too was passionate about the arguments. Rather facetiously, thinking about holidays this week, I noted that no-one would feel judged for their choice of a camping trip by someone who was jetting off to a catered villa in the south of France, or feel compelled to justify themselves for a week in Haven rather than a luxury skiing break. Envious, perhaps, but not judged. Of course, these are consumer choices, but they’re choices made by individuals with due regard to their own personal preferences and circumstances, not with a view to criticising those whose position is different. It is telling, I think, that we readily impute bad faith to a woman’s experience or opinion in this, when we would hesitate to do so in other circumstances. 

Could it be that women are conditioned to feel guilty and inadequate in all aspects of our lives, long before we pee on a stick? Could it be that we are so accustomed to anticipate censure of our choices and our decisions that we pre-empt attack when none is intended? That we conflate objective observations with our own subjective narrative, and that we are used to a culture of unspoken competitiveness where we translate another’s “success” as necessarily requiring our own “failure”?

And then, at the same time, as real-life motherhood is devalued in many ways, there is increasing pressure on women to get this, as every other aspect of their lives, (impossibly) perfect. There is extensive coverage of celebrities having babies: their figures, their choice of names, their philosophy of parenting.There is a culture of blame, too, which tips into finger-pointing in the round (including at ourselves) where things happen or decisions are made which don’t deliver the desired outcome. It’s a fairly toxic brew. Added to this is an apparently deliberate approach by mainstream media to take advantage of all of the above, which affects so many women so closely, in order to generate audience attention and engagement by means of forcing allegiance, the taking of sides, where there would ordinarily be no such polarisation. And so, we settle into camps, raise our heckles and our unrealistic expectations, and so the cycle continues.

Why do some women feel that they have failed – in childbirth, when feeding their baby, at motherhood in general? To (horribly) misquote Jane Austen, I am not surprised that any woman feels that she has failed. I rather wonder that any thinks she has succeeded.

Taking a break


For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)

it’s always ourselves that we find in the sea

                                                        e.e. cummings

It goes without saying that obviously the worst thing about No1 breaking his right arm last week is that he now has a broken arm. Broken in two places, moreover, in what the discharge notes post-surgery called an “angulated fracture of the ulna and radius” and what I, once I’d mastered my gag reflex, called “looking like Mr Tickle”.

Driving three children to hospital, propping the patient up with one hand in the front passenger seat as he tried to faint, finding a space and coins for parking, and visibly freaking out the rest of the folk waiting in A&E weren’t much fun either  (well, the last part was, comparatively). Nor were the wait for him to come out of surgery and the wait to find out if the bones are healing straight, or if more surgery will be needed to pin them.

The holiday we’ve had to cancel is a shame, though. Long on children and short on cash, we camp, and it is just not a realistic option for late October. Since we’re restricted now to school holidays, the chances are that we won’t go away till next summer. We’re still lucky, and better off than a lot of people, in that we can be at home, and that we had already had a few days camping and some day trips before the accident, but It’s taking a little while to get used to the new shape of the summer.

I’ve been consoling myself with virtual vacationing. No1 is meant to keep his arm elevated and very still, which is giving rise to a lot of time where we sit watching TV while I browse the internet, wondering who are all these people who can apparently splash £10k on a family holiday. I’m not among them, but on the web, no-one knows your bank balance (except, perhaps, the Pentagon). So far, I’ve shortlisted a week in Gran Canaria, eyeballed a dozen or more villas in the south of Spain, drooled over an all-inclusive Mauritian paradise and costed a fortnight in DisneyWorld next summer. It’s been great fun. I don’t fully understand cookies, but I worry that somewhere, there’s a cabal of angry travel agents ready to turn up at my door with a print-out of my browsing history and a bill. 

Never knowingly underthought, the whole experience has left me pondering holidays and their purpose: part restorative break from routine, part identify definer. I’ve caught myself thinking “we’re not ‘all-inclusive’ sort of people” and “we don’t really *do* big holidays”, unable to imagine my scruffy crew trying to fit in anywhere more salubrious than a campsite. Would we, if we could afford to? Possibly, although I doubt I’ll ever get the chance to find out. There’s a whole other post, too, in the idea of being any “sort-of” person, and how much we define ourselves and others by our consumer choices.

I’ve realised more, though, how much the promise of two weeks away has shaped my whole year thus far. We’ve had a tough couple of years, and there’s still a lot of stress and uncertainty about where we go from here. Without being quite conscious that I was doing it, I have been building up to an escape from real life, even as I was starting to stress about packing enough pants and wondering whether the destinations we’d chosen would live up to their promise. The time away would have been wonderful (if just for the change), but even in the planning, there was the opportunity to wrest back a sense of control which it sometimes feels is missing in life. Or is that just me?

Choosing where to go, what to take, the things that will fill the days: it’s the promise of a temporary happy-ever-after when reality is more of a series of pragmatism and compromise. For a weekend, or ten days or however long can be wrested away from work, we can cast ourselves into a new role, re-write the script. Come back refreshed and recharged, with the chimerical conviction that we’ll make the changes in our lives we know in our hearts will never come about. I’ve been putting off some decisions that I now have no excuse for avoiding. Time to “find” myself in the cheaper and rather more prosaic setting of home. 

Last Friday Night

My just-turned-seven-year-old daughter has discovered music. Not for her the feverish adoration of One Direction running through her friends like chicken pox. instead, she’s raiding the stack of 600+ CDs hidden in her wardrobe from our days pre-children, but in between bursts of dancing to Nirvana and Scissor Sisters and Beverley Knight (it’s a long story), she’s also begging to go on YouTube and watch more current pop videos.

Katy Perry is a big favourite, largely, I suspect, because of the ever-changing hairstyles. It started with “Roar”, and we had a couple of weeks of hearing it on repeat until all three children were wandering round the house bursting out with “cos I am a CHAMPION” at random.

Then I realised, belatedly, that the soundtrack was changing, and that she was clicking on the other videos suggested in the sidebar. For a while, I didn’t pay much attention to the variously technicoloured pop froth coming from the iPad, but yesterday I tuned in to the fiendishly catchy “Last Friday Night” and was brought up short.

There’s a pounding in my head…

I grew up in Newcastle. My parents neither drank nor didn’t at home, but as soon as I reached my mid-teens, “going out” involved dressing up and heading to Dobsons in the city centre where Happy Hour meant you could buy a treble Bacardi and coke for £1.25. For less than a fiver, by 8pm you could be staggering merrily through the Bigg Market, chancing your luck with the bouncers, before teetering to the bus stop to catch the last bus home. House parties involved Diamond White and cheap lager, together with whatever we though we could get away with filching from the parents’ drink cabinets. Blue Curaçao, anyone?

It’s a blacked-out blur…

The drinking culture was hidden in plain sight. As soon as I got my first Saturday job at sixteen, the hours between fitting customers’ shoes would be filled with veiled competitive tales of the night before. At school, then sixth form, the gossip of who had got most pissed and done the most outrageous things was a particular form of currency which bought admission to the coolest cliques. A hangover was a badge of honour. I went on to University in Scotland, where drinking became even easier, despite licensing laws which kept the booze in shops locked behind gates for most of daylight hours and all of Sunday.

Think we kissed but I forgot…

Who knows why some people drink to excess while others, from the first, dislike the taste and the feeling of being out of control? For me, emerging from a shy and bullied start to teenager hood, partying seemed like a kind of get-into-jail free card. It seemed like the easiest way to change who I was, though I realise now it worked more like a badly-fitting disguise. A lot of the time it was fun, of course. But a lot of the time, it really wasn’t. Trying to remember who I’d kissed was the least of my worries.

Trying to connect the dots…

How to bring up children to have a healthy attitude to alcohol? I’m not so naive as to think I can. I’ll be honest with them about my own experiences, but I know that there’s a low threshold for how much they can learn from my lessons. Their own characters and social groups and peer pressure will have much more effect, in fewer years than I care to count. For a little while, I can keep my children off YouTube; stop them learning the lyrics to songs which make it all a laugh before they’ve even reached double figures. But Katy Perry didn’t invent our binge-drinking culture, though her song is another piece in the changing landscape in which drinking to excess is normalised and glamourised, even as health organisations call for tighter controls on how much alcohol we all consume.

As news comes today of plans to put more explicit warning labels on bottles of wine and other alcoholic drinks, I can’t help but wonder what effect they’ll have – either on those of us who drink (ir)responsibly at home, or those who save it all up for a weekly blow-out. We have a drinking culture, and it’s getting worse.

Am I prey to the moral panic of the ageing parent, or am I right to be worried? Probably both. But if children and young people will always push the boundaries, and of course they will, what is the effect of what was once edgy and semi-taboo becoming mainstream? Even if we know it’s all there, I’d rather the whole sex and drugs (booze) and rock and roll thing was there for them to discover, if they must, when they’re ready to rebel a little – not as the soundtrack to their childhood.