Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Piano lessons (or how we navigate the extra-curricular activity pressure on parents and their children)

Faced with a National Trust schoolroom, a chalkboard and and instruction to 'write something, anything you like', the Little One wrote this.

"I do pyano lesurns" ... or, to us spellers out there, "I do piano lessons".

And I wanted to tell you about it. You see, most children we know do three or four paid-for extra-curricular activities a week. These range from cricket, tennis and football, through swimming, to dance, gymnastics and theatre school. There's a huge pressure felt by so-called 'middle class' parents to conform to this. We want to give our children opportunities. We want them to be well-rounded. We fill their days with shouted instructions to hurry up so we can rush them from school to an activity, from weekend breakfasts to more activities. It carries on for years and it starts young. Yes I've seen signs for baby yoga, for toddler music groups, for baby gyms.

There are two honest truths about our parenting that I have to tell you about this.

Firstly, for our own family we don't agree with the rush-them-everywhere, fill-their-days-with-organised-activities school of parenting. We like to give our children time to play, to breathe, to rest, to be creative of their own accord. We like them to run round on grass playing silly games of tennis-cum-cricket with us rather than always join in with the keep-up-with-the-Jones' formal activity every single day. Apart from anything else, we know it would just exhaust them.

Secondly, even if we didn't feel this way, the complete honest, feel-ashamed-as-I-say-it truth is that we can't afford it. We can afford one activity per child and that's it. For several years, it's been gymnastics. It has taught our middle child how to manage in a large, organised group without us at his side. It's given him the skills and techniques in sports and activities that could transfer to other recreation from football and dancing. He loves it.

But my husband and I a long talk about it, and we've changed our approach this year. The Little One is at an age when he's thirsty for new experiences and skills, and the pride that comes from mastering them. He's incredible agile and interesting in sports. He's growing up in all senses of the phrase. We decided we'd enroll him in a number of different activities so that he has the chance to learn the skills and the rules of each, and most importantly find out what he likes and is good at. He's doing football, cricket, gymnastics, and occasional tennis. He's also doing piano lessons. For the sports, these are things he'll be doing in the playground, with his peers, in P.E. lessons, and after school as he grows up. If we want to enfranchise him to be able to do all these things, and to be included, we have to give him the chance to grasp the fundamentals now.

But I am not sporty by nature. I was the arty one. I learnt piano. I strongly feel piano is the gateway to being a musician of any hue, and any level. You learn about songs; you learn how to read music. You learn rhythm, beat and volume. It's learning a vocabulary and giving you an ear. Again, it's about enfranchising him. The funny thing is, I never thought he'd be the musical one. The eldest, now sixteen, has a father in the music industry and is always plugged into headphones. The youngest, now four, has snake hips, and dances to every song on the radio with glee. But the middle child, the almost-six year old, the one who dances like a fourteen-year-old boy at a disco and leans more towards maths and sciences... he surprised me. Yet he loves structure, he has incredible concentration and perseverance, he loves to learn and he loves to be good at things. Why was I surprised? He says his piano lessons are his favourite part of school now. And this is from a boy who loves school.

As the Tiny One starts school in the autumn, as the cricket and tennis seasons come to an end, I think we'll say goodbye to our days of wild abandon with our budget and slim back down on the sports spending. But I will fight tooth and nail for the piano. Apart from anything else, I have a keyboard on order (sadly not a traditional upright piano, but that's another story), and I plan to start learning again myself.

Disclaimer: Tuesday is piano lesson day and I totally forgot to send the Little One to school with his piano folder. Lofty ideals, rubbish execution. If only this wasn't the theme for my life!

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Easter 2015

Easter has come and gone. Where are the days going? They are flying by and I feel like I just need a half a day to get back ahead of myself. There never is that half day though, and so I'm always out of breath trying to catch up. Gosh, the things I could do if I had a cleaner, a couple of evenings when my husband wanted to watch a film on his own without me, and a magic machine to kick me out of bed at 6am every morning.

But I can't and I shouldn't complain. The world's a much tougher place for most other people in it and, even if you're not into the religious side of Easter, the giving thanks and feeling lucky part of it ought to be something all of us hold on to. New life racing in - who of us would ask it to go away or slow down?

Just you wait til I put up a whole post of Easter lamb pictures!

(And, by the way, I'm having yet another fed-up-with-my-outdated-clanky-blog-design moments. What do you think?)

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Days out with the kids: The Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester

If I was not a writer, I would just write one word here: Go. And you should just do it.

But one word won't do. So I will tell you some things about the Whitworth in Manchester. Firstly, there is a beautiful textile exhibition there until March 2016. It catches you off-guard. It stuns you. It can basically be summed up in that beautiful set of peacock-feather giant pompoms above. It places pattern, texture and colour together in ways that are intuitive rather than necessarily chronological or thematic. I stood nose-to-glass like a child without pocket-money gazing longingly into a sweet-shop. My children ran around but, unusually for me, I can't say I really noticed.

And then there's the art. Oh my. The Farrow & Ball-esque paint on the walls was beautiful in itself. But then they socked me in the eyeballs with paintings thrown together without care to date or genre, but with full-on appreciation of what picture speaks to which. Ignore the small children in the picture below (yes, they're mine, and yes, they're pretending to be caterpillars, and no, I have no idea why!) and just pretend you're that lady and, like her (I imagine), you're in heaven. Sketches and paintings, artists that are familiar to you mixed with those you wish you had heard of before. Installations like the whole, huge room full of vacant poppies, the perforated paper from the printers hung like a tent of grateful sorrow. A brass band of instruments flattened and hung like a 2D mobile. The most peaceful 45 meter long landscape drawing made from the powder of war. I can't be effusive enough. 

So, most of what I've said already is only applicable to you if a) you're on your own in your art gluttony or, b) your husband has very sweetly noticed you're more than a little bowled over and is watching your children. But, hang on: this is a child-friendly gallery. I'll tell you why: there's a fabulous room (the Clore Gallery) where you'll find all sorts of crafting and art for children to join in. Their walls of childrens' work are just as absorbing as the gallery walls. And they have art picnics which - I know, I know, heaven to an artophile mother - consist of a hamper full of drawing and collaging supplies that your children can take around the gallery and use while you go a little art-doolally. And we did, children and mother alike. If, like me, you've taken a break from art galleries while you mother your children, don't. Take them with you. Take them to the Whitworth.

Not convinced yet? The Whitworth is set in a park where your children can play and you can go on a sculpture trail. There's an art garden, Artist Sundays, art clubs and parties... I won't link to it all here. Just go to the website or,  better still, go there yourself. As a born and bred Londoner, I hope you can understand the gravity of what I'm about to say: for me, the Whitworth fills the place in my heart where the Tate used to be. And that was a very large, very precious hole to fill.
Sorry, I'm conscious that the photos I've used are more than a little rubbish. I'd go back to take better ones, but not only can I not afford a dSLR to do so, to be completely honest I can't afford the train fare right now either. So, go yourself, take better pictures than I did, and then tell me about them. I'll come and look at your pictures. They'll keep my arty heart ticking over until I can go back again.

And before I go, Raaaaaarrrrr!!!! Because after our picnic in the car (it was pouring down), we made a dash to the Manchester Museum up the road (our provincial version of The British Museum) for an hour of "Where are the real froggies? Let's go in a lift! Look, a dinosaur! I want to see the bows and arrows before we go!" Etc. It wasn't really stop-and-take-a-picture pace but the boys loved it. We went before and enjoyed it more fully but even this little whistlestop tour ticked the boxes.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Sewing - director's chair covers and my fabric stash (which you should see dwindling soon!)

We bought two directors chairs from Habitat yonks ago. So long that they don't even make this style any more. The oak frames are still going strong but the natural canvas covers were stained and holey. You can buy new covers from about a tenner, but where's the fun in that? So I ordered some canvas from Deckchair Stripes (now called The Stripes Company) and got sewing. Not only do I love the cobalt blue, but I think they look really professional (sorry, I don't know how to say that without sounding like I'm blowing my own trumpet!). And, best of all, we've all sat in them and nothing broke! Triple win.
I've been thinking a lot about my sewing recently. I've had a big sort-out of my fabric stash (see new neat-ish folded piles in the cupboard above). I've had a general tidy up. I've been thinking about the importance, in the early days of starting a new business, of focusing on your core business versus diversifying to a 'portfolio' approach. I think I'm the sort of person who responds best to diversity, and so I've been sewing up a number of different products to get some customer research on, cost up and time out, and to develop a sense of my style and interests. Watch this space.

Friday, 17 April 2015

9 tips on how to thrive as a mother

Perhaps I'm not the best person to give 'advice' on motherhood. I've been a mother since I was eighteen, and so I don't really know of an adult me without it, nor do I remember having lost anything by becoming it. How can I tell you how to thrive as a mother when that's all I've ever been? But then I've had to create room for myself within motherhood for over sixteen years now, and three children in I've learnt a little too.

The first thing I want to tell you is that the last sentence I wrote is not entirely true. Yes, you need to find room and time for yourself when a mother - a cup of coffee in silence while your children watch their favourite programme; a bath after they've gone to bed. But better than that, you need to find ways to be yourself and a mother at the same time. There's not 'the normal you' and 'the mother you', and a day full of lurches from one to the other. In the fullest sense, a mother is who you are as well as what you are. And the mother you are is because of the true, real you filling every corner of that mould.

Here are some of the ways I thrive in motherhood. I hope some of them are useful to you. I hope you know that there are many, many times when I feel like I'm drowning or failing in motherhood too!

  1. Sleep is the number one rule. Sacrifice other things to get more of it. Pick a nap over a clean house. Pick an early night over the washing up. The more sleep you've had, the better you'll feel, the more you'll accomplish, and the nicer you'll be to your children.
  2. Be yourself all the time, and find ways to involve your children in what makes you happy. Mine still aren't that into art galleries, but I still take them (and give them challenges like 'how many horses can you see in the paintings in this room?' because art galleries feed my heart). We love to walk, so we have found ways to get sometimes reluctant children to love it too (a future post, I think!).
  3. But also find time to be yourself apart from your children, if you can. I don't feel bad about the half hour or so I let my four-year-old watch tv after lunch so I can read blogs and drink my coffee, because it refuels me every day. Although your love for your children is limitless, your ability to treat them lovingly can run out if you don't give to yourself too. They need the best of you, and that requires you to be kind to yourself.
  4. Write to do lists because you'll kick yourself for forgetting things. Always put a couple of things on it that you've just done, as those first ticks just feel so good. Include little tasks, and break bigger ones up - put washing in machine, unload machine, do ironing etc, rather than 'do laundry'. If you're like me, little successes are key to your wellbeing, and so the more little ticks your day includes, the better you'll feel.
  5. Start the day with some successes already under your belt. If you're a night owl, tidy up once the children are in bed so that you start the day without the weight of that job already over you. If you can rise early (and your children aren't also up before dawn!), get a little done then. Playing catch-up on your day is demoralising and disheartening. It's always easier to start your day with your children without a weight or a chip on your shoulder.
  6. All those things that you beat yourself up about as a mother? Stop it. If you forget to brush their teeth today but remember every other day, they'll be fine. Trust me, the kind of parent who worries how a missed teeth-brushing will affect their child is not the kind of parent that the dentist dreads to see. It's the parents that don't worry about those things that are a problem. If you worry whether you're a good mother, that in itself means you are a good mother.
  7. Remember that your parenting is a function both of who you are and who they are. That equation is unique to the pair of you. Parenting books can give you tips but no one knows your child as well as you. The longer you parent them, and the more children you parent, the more you'll wish you knew that at the start.
  8. A change of scene is almost always the answer. Get them outdoors. Get yourself outdoors. Visit the park, go to the library, whatever it is - change things up and you'll find their cranky moods, their fighting, or your stir-craziness is forgotten or cured.
  9. Above all else, and I've said it before, be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself lots. Know tomorrow is another day. Know that the times you lose your temper or don't have the energy to play are not the times they'll remember, or the things that will damage them. Know your children really do think you're the best mum in the world, and force yourself to believe that. You're the best mum for them. Know that though you could do better, you could do worse - much worse. Give yourself a break when you need it. Fill your heart up so that you have more to give each day. Suck in all those cuddles they give you. Cuddle back.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Sewing: a windmill zoo reading cushion, for my tiniest four-year-old boy

front side windmill patchwork reading cushion, featuring Alexander Henry 2D Zoo fabric

reverse side envelope reading cushion cover, Alexander Henry 2D zoo

I don't know if I'm allowed to gush about my own work. Am I? But I just love this cushion so much. It's 65cm square, using a cheap cushion pad from Ikea that's not very puffy - on purpose. I didn't want a big squidge of a cushion that you roll off of. I wanted a nice big flattish square that you sink into and look at books, build train tracks, and colour pirate ships on. And all of those things have been done.

The blue stripy fabric is thrifted. The yellow dots are Art Gallery Chromatics Pointelle in yellow, bought from Celtic Fusion Fabrics. And all three zoo prints are different colourways of the lovely Alexander Henry 2D Zoo which I adore and had shipped over from Fabricworm in the US (couldn't find it in the UK at the time) a couple of years ago for the Tiny One's bed quilt.

The cushion was a gift for the Tiny One's fourth birthday. Four, people. Time just keeps marching forward, doesn't it? He is such a sunshiny boy: bright and sparky, joyful and warm. I love him to the sun and back, and even further than that. There were so many times before I got to hold him in my arms, four years ago, when we thought we had lost him. And there were times when he was small and I was so, so afraid that he had lost me. I just feel so lucky now that we're both here, part of this family, all loving each other and getting to stride forward into the future. It's why I'll never say 'I wish he could stay this little', because I know how lucky I am to be here, watching him growing up.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Sewing for money - a little small business post

I'm in the early days of my business, Sparrow Stitch. Sometimes I'm working on curtains for weeks, and sometimes things are a little lean and I'm taking on smaller projects. I don't actually mind. While I'm not trying to reach a certain income level month-to-month, the leaner times are good for business admin and a bit of sewing variety.
You may recall, from last summer, that I made one of these cushions before. A few weeks ago I made its twin, for Ava's little sister Eadie. I love a bit of girly sewing, and there's something quite therapeutic about running the seams of a square through the zig-zag stitch of my sewing machine.
I also made some bandanas to fit on a couple of dog collars. A friend's mother commissioned me and gave me some detailed parameters, but again it was a satisfying project. Neat, precise, tidy. Kind of what I needed at the time.

It's the Easter holidays at the moment, so my sewing's hit a bit of a standstill while we spend most of our time outdoors. I wouldn't wish the time away, but I'm looking forward to Monday coming round, school and nursery starting up again, and hearing the sound of my sewing machine coming back to life.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Spring has sprung

Yes it rains a lot, and gosh hasn't it been windy? But every few days we wake up to this:
And though the frost is there, the sun is singing that old song, "Morning has broken....", and I know it won't be long before the frost turns back to dancing beads of dew. If I step outside to look at that rising sun - and I often do - the birds are carolling about it at the top of their little lungs, as if they too feel like skipping.
We take a walk along the river that runs through our village, and the stream too is singing in its babbling voice, chuckling to itself with the glee of new life. The riverbanks are still largely void of growth, but look closer and you'll see that the sunshine with its warm breath has blown a message into the soil, and shoots are appearing. Trees are beginning to bud. Rabbits are scampering in the still-vacant campsite. And the birds are still singing in giddy chorus.
Walk a little further, away from the shade of the riverbank, and these glorious fellows meet you. That's my littlest, the Tiny One, in the distance there. He's exploring the farm lane, looking for new spring flowers, searching for lambs in the fields, grabbing every stick he can find with his brother.

It's such a good time of year. Everything has promise, hope and beginnings. While the winds are still often cold and the frosts plenty, the rains still flying in our faces; even on these days the nature around us is standing firm and believing in the spring days to come.

Friday, 20 February 2015

the end of winter?

I didn't think I suffered from SAD. 

I think it's the snow that bothers me most, in the way that it's so restricting up here and lasts so long, slowly turning into ice. And I'm not the biggest winter fan, but few are. I dance my way to Christmas and then idly twiddle my fingers and circle my ankles while I wait for winter to slope off, tail between its legs.

But a few days ago, before it turned chilly again, there was the littlest touch, the daintiest spring of Spring in the air. And oh my goodness. I virtually skipped everywhere rather than walking. I unbuttoned my coat. The boys took theirs off. The green tips of emergent daffodils were beginning to whisper their yellow secret. And you should have heard the birds. They weren't singing to communicate they were singing a song. Suddenly it was like the whole of our little, 200m-above-sea-level world stopped, stood up and listened. From cheery daffodils still hidden in their winter coats, to small boys throwing theirs off and whooping: we all heard the sound of Spring.

I knew that morning that the day was going to be good. I knew I was going to tick a whole raft of limpets off my to-do list. That I would be a lovely mother. That I would smile at the villagers as I walked past, that I would be airy and cheery when my husband came home at the hungry-boys-witching-hour, that everything would be so gosh-darned lovely.

And afterwards, when the next day dawned swathed in cloud and washing cold air past my ears, I thought: perhaps that SAD thing affects me after all. Or affects most of us. And actually, I'm done with treading water while the world tips over the bottom end of the year. We're 5/6th's of the way through winter. The snowdrops have already popped up to say goodbye to it. The daffodils are waiting impatiently in the wings. I expect I'll spot some crocuses soon. We're all done with winter. Let's all tell it to head off where the sun don't shine.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Bringing nature in: walking, foraging, collecting and displaying - the journey of myevergreen sprigs

Walking in the Peak District
We walk a lot with our children. If they're not in school, we're off out with them. We love the outdoors; but on a purely practical note, we have boys and they need a daily dose of fresh air and exercise to stop us all going crazy! And sometimes when we walk, when my kitchen table is a little bare and I need a little outside in my indoors, I go armed with a shoulder bag and a pair of secateurs.

Forage and collect evergreen leaves and sprigs
I have a theme in mind: wild flowers, seed heads, or in this case evergreens. There's not much about in January but the often ignored evergreens are sculptural and succulent, making a great centrepiece. Cut a sprig of holly here, some laurel there, ivy with its buds out, pine for its needles. Wear gloves: it's cold but a lot of your fodder is prickly. Cut the right sort of length for your vase and don't take more than you need - apart from anything else, detangling it all from your bag is a nightmare if you've not loosely packed!

Bringing nature in: evergreen sprigs displayed in a vase
Come home, warm up, put the kettle on. Fill your jug with water and detangle those evergreen sprigs that you've foraged. Arrange them in your vase, and suddenly your kitchen is - for free, yes, gratis people - adorned with a bit of the outside, a bit of nature, a bit of life. They'll be happy for several weeks if you're lucky. And so will you.