Thursday, 24 December 2009

GUEST POSTING: by Hazel Gould

It’s coming on Christmas and they’re cutting down trees: I feel OK about it though, because it’s a renewable crop and growing lots of trees, even if they’re destined to be felled, has to be a good thing doesn’t it? But as we are all beginning to feel that our Christmas gift from Copenhagen needs to be sent back and exchanged, I am recognizing more than ever that it’s not just the thought that counts.

I do my bit. I recycle, I communally compost, I don’t have a car, I have two pairs of Howies jeans. What was once a cute and quirky little collection of re-useable shopping bags: A New Leaf, Portland, Oregon; Back to the Earth, Leeds; Bags that Won’t Cost the Earth, Brixton Wholefoods; is now a mountain of unbleached cotton. It may prove in years to come that jute is just as bad as plastic, but my addiction to tote bags illustrates my commitment. I have used cloth nappies for both my children, viewing disposables as a treat only for high days and holidays. I haven’t been on a long haul flight since week 16 of my first pregnancy. It’s slightly by default, but with two children holidaying closer to home is the obvious, as well as the ethical, choice.

I’m no angel though. I transgress in the most energy inefficient ways. It began when I was staying at my mum’s. My mother is an intellectual and not known for fastidious housewifery, but she is the best laundress I have ever encountered. It is a dark art that I have never mastered. After a bath, I asked her how she got her towels so warm and fluffy. She drew me in close, and whispered, ‘I tumble them’.

And so, I tumble my towels. I’m not proud, but how can it be wrong when it feels so right? Since this revelation, my housekeeping has veered further and further towards the 1950s triumph of science. After a heady, but ultimately unrewarding affair with eco balls and essential oils, I compromised by using earth friendly washing powder. But it doesn’t work for me. Despite myself, I want my clothes to smell of chemicals that smell like cut grass. Ecover has all but been totally phased out. And while I know that tea tree is a natural disinfectant, I still want bleach down my toilet.

I don’t say this as a climate change denier; I say this as someone who knows how vital it is for us to act. So why is it so hard to make those tiny sacrifices? I think it’s because whilst I have the luxury of choice, I can choose to carry on regardless and not ever look at what the impact of my fluffy towels really is. For me climate change means some unseasonal plant growth, I am not living in a reality where I’ve lost my husband to a tiger attack or my home to an advancing shoreline. To stare that reality in the face would mean it’s admitting what is happening, and I fear that I can’t live with that. Perhaps on some level, that’s exactly the rationale behind the limp agreements from Denmark this month.

Climate change is a perfect example of how the comings and goings of an average household impact on the world outside. Just as a butterfly that flaps its wings in the jungle may cause a cyclone in the desert, the bleach flushed down my sparkling white bathroom porcelain may poison a fish, starve a gull, drown a polar bear.

Dickens knew what he was doing when Scrooge underwent his transformation on Christmas night, and shows us how the actions of one man can impact so many. The long dark nights of winter, and the celebration that punctuates, is a time to reflect, a time to give, a time to act with kindness and with spirit. I’m not religious, but I love Christmas for its warmth and generosity. I have listened to the comings and goings of Copenhagen and read the reports from the front lines of climate change telling of people whose lives and livelihoods have been decimated. I have seen the ghost of Christmas future, and I don’t like what I see. Just like Ebenezer, it’s time to recognize that by making small changes I will ultimately make my world, and the world around me, not just a better, but a viable place to live. So I’ll carry on doing my bit. But this year, I’ll do it with bells on.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Today I Will Notice

Grace Coddington, creative director of US Vogue and ‘surprise star’ of The September Issue, a film for which the only real surprise is that it was made at all, made one lovely, poignant comment in among a lot of arguing about rails and frills. She said that her father had told her never to fall asleep in a car because that’s when you do your best noticing, find inspiration, see the world as new and interesting all over again.

My sister and her family have just arrived home from their new home in Brisbane for Christmas, to be greeted by snow. It’s 39º in Brisbane. Snow is an unimaginable miracle. For us, the idea of leaving the house without four protective layers, ski gloves and an emergency frizzy-hair preventing hat in every pocket is an unimaginable luxury. But the look on my niece and nephew’s faces as we pulled away from the concrete of Terminal 3 very early yesterday morning into snow-sprinkled dawn-dappled suburbia was pure noticing gold. They haven’t learnt to stop looking yet, however jet-lagged and grumpy they are.

And so, Grace Coddington, here are the amazing things I noticed while looking rather than concentrating:

1. North London houses do have gardens, some of them quite sizable, and all of them completely magical at 5.30 am when thick with crisp, fresh, icy snow.

2. The clarity with which you understand the Radio 4 news when it’s 5.30 am and there are no children, other cars or general outside activity to distract you is extraordinary. I formed current-affairs based opinions on the trip to Heathrow for the first time in years.

3. There is literally no-where more wonderful to be than in front of a long-haul Arrivals door five days before Christmas. This is where the world is happy, and where everyone cries with the simplicity of that.

4. My sister and her family chose to take their Arrivals moment in slightly un-Vogue attire: shorts, t-shirts, flip flops and Santa hats. I will literally never forget the sight.

5. Seasons are evidence of an extraordinary truth – that it’s really really cold here and really really hot just over there. On the same planet. The planet that sometimes feels so small and claustrophobic, but is actually so huge that we can live on it together but in a completely different time of the year.

6. There are flowers growing in our local park, in the snow. Maybe that's something that should scare me, or maybe it's the just the one plus side of global warming.

7. There’s a restaurant opposite St Pancras station called Eataly. Admittedly I didn’t see this today, it was last week, but isn’t that just the most fabulous name for a restaurant? It’s impossible to say without a fake accent, a hand gesture and a smile. Thanks Grace.

Monday, 14 December 2009

The devil wears trainers

I’m writing this on the bus, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and the wonders of my husband’s inability to ever put things back where he found them. I am locked out of the house, on my way to his office to collect his keys, while mine will be found later in his coat pocket. And in a spectacular addition to the fun of this outing, I have just come from the gym, so I’m feeling really excited to be heading into normally-clothed-professional-land with trainers and sweaty hair.

Actually, aside from the trainers shame, my main emotion right now is fear. Of myself. Until a few moments ago, I was literally beside myself with anger that my keys weren’t in my bag. And I mean body-shaking anger. How could anyone be so stupid as to borrow keys and not replace them? How can a just world exist if I am on the outside of my front door unable to open it? My anger, and the breathtaking pace of its appearance, was shocking. I think I might be deeply troubled.

I have more evidence than just the keys. Recently I bought a dress and I bought a size too big. You’d assume this would be quite a pleasant experience, but sadly when I went to exchange it they didn’t have a size smaller, even after some lengthy stock-room rummaging. So, even though I'd actually worn the dress so was very much in the wrong on both size and ethics, when she very politely offered me a credit note I was so incensed and irritable with the shop assistant that even my four-year-old son turned away in shame.

Then, after sulking for too long in the changing rooms trying to find something half as nice, I was late back to the car park and discovered I’d fallen just five minutes into the stay-all-night price, which was about double the price of the dress I didn’t now have. It’s hard to describe the exact emotions that surged, but darkness was all around as I stared with pure hatred at the lovely man doing his job behind the glass. But in fact, and unfortunately in terms of any important learning process, he was explaining that he’d let me off the extra charge, and put back the clock with a cheery smile. I magically transformed back into the kind, polite woman my mother brought me up to be – instantly. Deeply troubled and possibly possessed.

I met a friend’s wife for the first time last week and it threw me into a bit of a decline over the whole snappy, angry personality thing. Sitting next to her in my black dress (in fact, aforementioned dress in wrong size, nice symmetry) over my black jeans with my black and white Converse I realised that I had become a sort of stay-at-home widow by mistake. Understated cool I was not – colourful, stylish and seriously interesting looking she was. My wardrobe is sartorial embodiment of my bi-polar personality: deceptively comfy and wearable but with an almost clean sweep of black and grey and all a bit irritably ill fitting.

However, while a complete colour-palette transformation of my wardrobe is a bit out of the pre-Christmas budget, off-loading some of my anger concerns has made me feel a hundred times better and calmer. So it’s win, win. No longer need I be angry that I’ve got nothing but mummy nonsense to write about – who needs to be clever when you can just psycho-analyse in public.

Friday, 11 December 2009

GUEST FRIDAY: by Hazel Gould

Hot Monogamy

A good friend once told me that she had found a book in her parents’ bedroom entitled Hot Monogamy, counseling married couples on how to keep things alive in the bedroom. It is written into our DNA that any mention of the sex lives of our parents or their peers will induce dry retching and a constricting of the airways, but it’s not the disgust that I remember. It’s the pity. How sad, I thought, that a couple could be getting it so wrong, they have to refer to a book to make it right again.

In my early 20s, I thought that the key to happiness in love was simply this: finding the right person. Informed almost entirely by romantic comedies, I knew with certainty that the struggle was all in the preamble, and that once I had decided to seal the deal with a man who felt the same as me, the credits would roll, and the ensuing 40 years would play out in the reflective glow of our perfect first kiss.

During my wedding ceremony, my eloquent, intelligent, nervous husband mispronounced his vows and promised to stay with me through ‘Aversity’. Our preamble had been filled with fight and moving apart and coming back together, we had already had our battles and the idea that there might be more to come was so alien to us that we couldn’t even speak it. We had done the graft, and from this day forward, it was going to be plain sailing. It never occurred to me that the ‘hard work and compromise’ that was spoken about would actually ever be hard work. It never occurred to me to ask why rom-coms rarely get a sequel.

My husband is a good man and a great dad, we make each other laugh, we are respectful of one another, we are kind and supportive. I am, two years into my marriage, happy, but we’re not Hugh Grant and Andy MacDowell, and we have our rightful share of grievances.

Yesterday, as he left for work under the cloud of an unresolved row, I remembered the experience of another friend. During a year of living an East Coast/ West Coast life with her boyfriend, they had religiously read the same books at the same time so that their nightly conversations had some focus other than the boredom and loneliness of being separated by 3000 miles of land mass. My husband and I live in the same house, but we too are conducting a long distance relationship of sorts. The burden that he carries of our financial well-being and my desire for more help, time and sleep all prove to create a distance that physical proximity doesn’t always bridge.

As in so much of my married life and my parenting, I find myself doing exactly the thing that I promised myself I would never do. Not because I’ve given up, or given in, or run out of ideas, but because all of a sudden, the very thing that I dismissed as pedestrian or pointless seems to be exactly the right thing. It turns out that I’m not the mother who takes her 12-week-old baby to India, and I do have to bribe my children to eat vegetables. In that moment, as I formulated the sentence 'let's have a two person book club' I suddenly realized that I am that person. We are that couple. We do need to work at it, and we may even need to take some hints and tips from travelers further down the road than us. For us, it’s not our physical life that needs spicing up, it’s our intellectual one. It is Hot Monogamy for the brain.

So what is it to be? The mini book club? A weekly date? Comandeering a column on the family calendar for ‘quality couple time’? Actually I think it’s easier than that. It’s just about remembering that the man who walks through the front door at the end of the evening is not to blame for everything that goes on behind it, and the woman that he finds there is more than the badly-fitting bra and the snot-smeared jeans might suggest. Just like taking your coat off indoors so you’ll feel the benefit, the one conversation we that have in 10 which veers away from the big four (work, money, children, food) has the power to take me right to a place where he and I are simply two individuals who are together because we choose to be, not because of contracts, children, bricks and mortar, and beyond. I value our time together more than I ever did pre-kids.

So it turns out that I was wrong back then, when Hot Monogamy was nothing more to me than a sign of something I would never be. I do have to work at it, but I was right too. I did find the right person, it’s just that now I know that the right person is the one who makes the hard slog worth it.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The Curse of the Mummy

I had some feedback on my blog last week in a slightly unsolicited way from the editor of a lovely national magazine. Someone it might be quite handy to please in fact. The general verdict was that she liked my writing (hurrah) but thought the whole ‘mummy’ thing had been done to death (quote, and boo).

My first reaction was to agree actually. My instinct is that that I don’t enjoy reading about other people’s experiences of wiping baby puke off their laptops as much as I enjoy a good yarn about windfall tax plans, celebrity misdemeanours or what people are wearing in New York. These are things that are definitely worth blogging about.

But then I thought about it a bit more, and I remembered that there were a few things I still hadn’t got a clear handle on about motherhood, and I recalled a couple of friends mentioning the same thing. And I thought about how much better it made me feel, sometimes, putting my thoughts on keyboard, or reading about how badly someone else’s life skills were serving them in their particular domestic war zone.

And I thought about another comment I’d had on the whole blogging thing, about how people don’t like to read other people’s abstract musings. How there needs to be a linear narrative, a direction, an end point in sight. Then people will follow, come back, support. The advice came from a man and, without getting all Hélène Cixous, I think we can agree that this opinion has been somewhat dissected and challenged over the years. However, he had a point – men don’t like to muse as much as women. While the internet helps women to share, it helps men to market.

So maybe what it comes down to is originality. You can offer anything for discussion if you do it with originality. Take Slummy Mummy. Banal and tedious, or insightful and witty? You don’t have to answer that, but in a world where it’s sometimes difficult to remember whether your career is on hold for the family or the family is on hold for your career, being creative about the whole situation and sharing, musing and boring anyone who’ll give you five minutes of screen time makes motherhood feel far more professional as a profession.

There’s a Stephen Fry quote outside the British Library that I think sums up the ever-expanding world of internet musing: ‘An original idea. That can't be too hard. The library must be full of them.’ And long may plundering the past and musing about the present be potential insights for all our future posts.

Monday, 30 November 2009

It's not easy being wrong

I’m working on a couple of options for the opening of a conversation I need to have with my kids – specifically the nearly-nine-year-old. It’s a delicate matter, but one that’s consuming me, so I need to show both compassion and kindness and strength of conviction.

Option one: ‘I’m going to look for a full-time office job so you can go to playcentre every night after school and hopefully you’ll find someone there who will take care of your every need without irritating you so much that you find it impossible to talk to them without barking and when I do come home in time for a quick bedtime kiss you will have forgotten how much I annoy you and try to constantly ruin your life and we will be friends again.’

Option two: ‘I used to talk to my mum like this and trust me, you’ll regret it one day.’

Option three: ‘I’m telling. Daddy. And Granny. And Santa.’

So my daughter talks to me like an angry teenager already. I can hear my mum laughing all the way to the corkscrew. Becoming a mother is, among other observations, like opening a huge, unapologetic picture window on your childhood and all the things you’d either forgotten or successfully repressed. All the behaviour patterns, friendship concerns, relationship issues that you’d rather not re-live on are right there in front of you in the form of small people who look a little like you and a lot like someone you fell in love with and frankly expect a more mature attitude from.

Every time you face a decision-making moment with your children, and you reach the answer that will define your parenting method for the next stage of their lives, there’s an accompanying supportive smile from a grandparent. Supportive and piteous. And loaded with dry amusement. You realise, mere hours after hospital discharge, that the bundle of newness you’ve brought into the world is also the very thing that will turn a spotlight on every minute of every emotion you’ve ever brought your mum.

Which hopefully, and certainly in my experience, is a good thing – once you’re over the inclination to throw a teenage tantrum every time advice is offered.

The thing is that I always thought I’d be better at this bit than the playgroup and nappies bit. I always thought my strengths would be with children who could reason and opinion, and so far it’s exactly that which has flawed me – in the most irritable, defensive and sulky foot-stamping way. I can’t do it. I can’t be ignored and shouted at for offering the wrong chocolate biscuit or wanting to wash their favourite clothes. It’s exhausting, and depressing.

If I’d written this before the weekend, it might have alluded to some slightly judgemental observations I had about other people’s parenting skills. I had a definite conviction last week that I knew kids who’d been let go too soon, interest had been lost, mothering downsized, and I was determined not to cave, however hard the challenge. After a weekend of getting it wrong, I’m not so sure. Mother and daughter relationships are impossible to understand unless you’re in them, and even then it’s a bit hazy. What I do know is that the lessons from granny are gold dust. And that being able to watch my mother-in-law bring her precious teenage girls through the darker years with such hands-on understanding, compassion and carefully levelled monitoring is a complete privilege. If getting it wrong is noisy, getting it right is a quiet but extraordinary victory. Go Nanna.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Boy power

Catherine Millet (or should I say Catherine Millet, 60, Writer) wrote yesterday in the Observer that she likes her men younger these days, because they have more energy than middle-aged ones. And, more newsworthy perhaps, that she’s ‘cool with mixing sex and work’. I thought this was a fabulously random view to share, and I’d like to agree with her, on the second point. But then I work from home, so my options are limited to either my husband or any male houseguests, which seems like a tricky game to play. So my opinion is slightly less risqué than hers maybe.

However, it does highlight a very particular problem with home working – an issue that I approach with trepidation for fear of implying something I don’t mean. Basically, there’s no-one to flirt with. I don’t mean the ‘sex and work’ thing that Catherine Millet, 60, Writer is referring to. I mean the very different style of social interaction that occurs when you talk to a man rather than a woman.

I love the company of women, and have always had amazing friends to confide in, support me and inspire me in a way that is very particular to women. My girlfriends are consistently the perfect antidotes to almost anything that’s wrong in life. But, like almost everything good in life (marzipan aside) the magic doesn’t work if it's all that's on offer.

After two long years working on The Lady magazine, that very special ladies’ weekly taught me two important life lessons. Never to work in Covent Garden on minimum wage again, and never to work in an entirely all-female office again. You only need a post-boy, or an ad man, or even a male boss – just someone to break the tension.

Fundamentally, women make friends on a different level to men. I crave ‘moments’ with virtual strangers as evidence of my competence, intellect and general niceness. I worry so much more about what women think of me than men. And trying to have that level of intimacy with a bunch of women you spend most of your waking day working around, with the added pressures of strip lighting, crap coffee and shoe envy, is a rich breeding ground for that most deadly of viruses – passive aggression.

I generalise, I know. And of course neither office politics or flirting potential are gender defined. But from my experience, everyone feels more inclined towards another working day after a slightly awkward journey in the office lift with the person who caught your eye just one too many times at the Christmas party last year and, 11 months on, you’d completely forgotten was still in the building.

So now, working from home, I’m spending too much time in my own totally passive aggressive company. Or struggling with the complex politics of my other working environment – the playground.

Last week was the school’s parents’ association AGM – the closest I’ve been to a proper meeting in weeks, and an exciting chance for some actual debate, discussion, maybe even a need for a follow-up meeting-ette to finalise the carol-singing running order? Anyway, someone, female, made a completely ridiculous comment, which I raised an eyebrow at just as she turned to scan the room for signs of dissent. She saw, I died an inward death, and left the building as my cheery goodbye was greeted with a turn of the back. Meanwhile, a dad I’d practically scowled at held the door open and walked me to the car.

Whilst I’m keen to point out that this is not a pre-curser to any kind of sex-work relationship, there's no denying there was an air of palpable excitement that a man had shown up to the meeting at all. Now if I could just get the unenergetic middle-aged man who sells me pre-school cereal bars every day to smile at me, my working world would be as diverse as it ever was.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

GUEST WEDNESDAY: The Nanna Diaries

I follow just three blogs at the moment: Micro-chasms, The Hermitage and Wgafwit and, I think, within those I am really getting a diverse world view.

The Hermitage is following the life of Traveller and Artist (and I'm sure many other things) Rima – who lives the life that I should be living myself, being sure that I am of rambling Traveller if not Circus folk descent. She draws like an angel, and deserves to be a Blogger Legend (viz: Bleg). I don't like outdoors, animals or anything broadly termed 'nature', but I do like trailer-life. I miss my Traveller friends sorely – and the long muddy paths, on-site coffee, weeing on wild garlic and hearing the distant dogs. But for now the nearest I can get to it is to follow Rima.

Wgafwit is the mind-child of my beau-frere, Nicolas, who has only one post so far and its particularly interesting because it's a man blog (viz: Mlog). Men write equal but different and I really enjoyed it.

Ah now, Micro-chasms. Written by awesome daughter-in-law who has asked me to present at Guest Wednesday, and my mentioning her blog along with Hermitage and Wgafwit, follows on from her recent post about how her generation define themselves.

Well, how things have changed. I did a straw poll of how my friends define themselves by profession and it went something like this: retired, semi-retired, retiring, part-time, and me very full-time. In there are therapists, social workers, teachers and hairdressers, confirming that many of those who survived the sixties and didn't become crooks or bankers went into support professions. Each and every one is a parent.

Let me immediately re-assure those who suffer angst as to how they are currently defined, and who ponder long on the relative values and definite battle grounds of full-time employee or stay-at-home parent, that this doesn't last. Now, in our fifties and sixties, the main pre-occupation (sadly) is how soon one can retire from a career that seemed oh so important in the early days. In my tribe, we never say ‘That person is a retired doctor, dentist or lawyer’; rather that they are either retired or not.

As to the war zones: well, I have seen older people crave acceptance from their adult children who cannot forgive them for pursuing a career, and equally I have seen full-time mothers seek appreciation from their adult children who find it difficult to see why or what that parent gave up exactly, and why they are expected to feel guilty.

So you see, it really all doesn't matter a jot; I'm sorry to have to say this because it will disappoint many who are justifying their ways of life in the way that women always have felt necessary. I believe it's all about being able to support the children that we bring into the world. If you’ve have a spouse who brings home six figures plus, well lucky for you. If you have had to take two or three rubbish jobs to pay for it all, then welcome to a different world.

The only thing that really makes me a bit frantic is when people think that they have the top jobs by right or that they have worked harder than others. As everyone knows, my favourite downtime occupation is 'tipping' and last week one of the men who is employed there told me that he works a seven day week at £6.75 per hour. Rain or shine. He doesn't love it, he just does it. The people who own it earn thousands. Not because they are more clever, rather that perhaps they got the breaks. Which would be fine if they paid him what he was worth. So maybe the whole thing is about equity and fairness and, dare I say it, sharing what we have in a just way.

Maybe that's the same for us. We have to decide what we want; decide on what we are fortunate to have, and not to waste time on how others see us. And look forward to retirement.

The Nanna Diaries

Monday, 16 November 2009

Design for life

I heard a brilliant phrase last week – told to me by someone trying to explain the difference between the advancement of Japanese mobile phones compared to the US models. I honestly don’t remember why this conversation took place, there was red wine involved for sure, but I’m glad it did for this little gem: A camel is a horse designed by committee. So the Japanese have got far better phones because they work together and put all their best ideas in one model that’s super useful and fit-for-purpose. Not just pretty.

I knew instantly I heard this analogy that it struck a deep personal chord of recognition, but it took me until last night when I was going through the bath, teeth, story, bed routine to work out why. I am the camel – my kids are the dedicated committee working tirelessly to mold, tweak and manipulate me into a super efficient human machine of provision. Any unnecessary thoroughbred tendencies I might affect (polished fingernails, freedom of thought etc) have been filed down and phased out by a tri-positional assault from my highly effective design team, so the current model of me is perfectly streamlined and efficient for their needs.

If this sounds bitter, it’s not meant to be. I’m delighted to call myself a proper mum, particularly because it’s something even my Granny is a bit surprised I’ve managed to achieve. But becoming perfectly honed for one very specific task might be the reason I’ve started to notice that disappearing thing happening, the thing that grumpy old women claim is worse even than the wolf-whistling of their glorious past.

According to my design instructions, my heart is full only of love, my intentions are only to provide and serve, and any aesthetic concern is a frivolous waste of battery power. At least that’s what the grey hair and, let’s call them laughter lines, would attest to. There’s a growing amount of physical evidence that I am definitely the mother and not the au pair.

It’s not as though I was ever a teenage beauty queen, but neither was I constantly untucked or unironed. It’s hard for a perpetually self-disappointed woman like myself to admit, but I’ve have been generally easy on the eye. I think. Anyway, whatever the past held in promise or photographic evidence, it has really let go. Six months ago I went on holiday feeling like a woman with a surprisingly large family for my tender years. Six months later and I have just spent a morning finally downloading the photos, and deleting any evidence that I was even present when the plane took off.

So is this it, the age when I start to slowly disappear? I feel as though the me I live with is based to a frighteningly large degree on the me that people responded to. If I’m no longer visible, am I still me? And when I meet new people, how will they know who I really am if they can only see a tired, wrinkled and wobbly version of the person inside?

There’s a finer line than I thought between the glamorous excesses of the high-speed gallop around the racecourse on a Saturday afternoon and the long trudge through the desert. But, while I have always had a bit of a phobia about horses’ legs being too skinny for practical use, and I am proud to be fit-for-purpose, I’m not sure there isn’t still room for a few more flashy apps and unnecessary features before I saddle up and head for the sunset.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


I’m going home on Friday. As an English girl, even after 12 years of living in Denmark, I still refer to England as 'home'.

I’m going to London to spend time with some very good girlfriends and I am so excited. I’m also looking forward to the precious 'me' time that comes so rarely when I get away without children.

Imagine, flying on my own for once! I’ll be able to read my book, plug in my headphones and not worry about small feet kicking the seat in front. It won’t be me having to ensure that everyone has drinks, snacks, books, snacks, toys, been to the toilet, clean nappies, and did I mention snacks? And there’ll be the added bonus of other people’s kids crying on the aeroplane not bothering me one bit – I’ll be able to shut it out because it won’t be my responsibility (or I suppose I could offer a sympathetic smile and help to reach the overhead locker).

Once in London, I am going to be such a tourist. It has been ages since I was there last and I am looking forward to drinks and eats in Soho and a stroll through Camden. We’re even going to make it to a show.

I intend to do some serious shopping. Of course, I’ll hopefully make it past Selfridges and maybe even Harvey Nics. But I’m also going to be sure to stock up on the ordinary English things that I miss in Denmark: Tate and Lyle’s Golden Syrup, self-raising flour, proper teabags, salt and vinegar crisps, Marks and Spencer’s underwear, and pretty much everything from Boots. I’ll have to pop into WHSmith’s just to breathe in all the magazines.

These things sound trivial. And they are. In the big scheme of things I happily live without all of them. But they remind me of my roots. Perhaps it is only something you can appreciate if you have been away for a while, but if you grew up in England, you can take any boring high street and there’ll be something that reminds you about your teenage years. It might be the local pub, HMV, or the pick ‘n’ mix at Woolworths (err, sorry, no-one can have that one anymore). I know that this probably doesn’t say anything good about the generic nature of the British high street, but it’s the memories associated with these things that are worthwhile.

However, regardless of my ingrained 'Englishness' and my desire for some good old-fashioned fish and chips, when I am back in England I actually feel quite foreign. I can’t remember the queuing etiquette or the correct way to fill out a lottery ticket. I haven’t a clue what’s going on in X-Factor or Come Dancing. I don’t know the right way to use the word minger and I am not 100% sure who all the politicians are anymore. And, after years of getting used to the Danish non-existent customer-service experience, I get quite startled if anyone in a shop actually speaks to me.

So, at the end of the weekend, when I reluctantly say goodbye to my girlfriends, I will again be able to happily say that I am going 'home'; back to Copenhagen and all the familiar things that I have, despite myself, become accustomed to there.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Holding it together

Our cat just left home. Not entirely of her own volition, but she was purring. She’s been rehoused, repackaged and relocated to her country retirement estate. No longer is she mistress of a Georgian town house with a garden smaller than the bathroom. She’s got land, a chocolate box cottage and cows to play with. And a new mummy who will actually seek her out for comfort.

It’s incredibly hard to talk about cats without losing a certain degree of dignity and sanity, but seeing as I’m fairly convinced this is a subject that could never reduce me to an emotional heap I’m going to try. She was a member of the family after all…

In fact, now she’s gone, I’m a bit concerned that maybe she was the glue that held the family together. Obviously as parents we are consigned to loving adoration and pride for all eternity, but are siblings not really just a small collective of people with shared experiences and memories? The only other people in the world who truly appreciate the unique boundaries of their allotted parents and what rubbish breakfast cereals they choose.

It’s only as a child that you have a proper handle on what it is to be a sibling. Once you’ve left home, the sister you never allowed beyond your bedroom door for fear of total destruction of your carefully catalogued LP collection becomes something different. The brother you regularly relied on for nothing more than flopped-hair friends and a steadying arm home after the ‘no alcohol’ youth club disco is to be admired, talked to, befriended even. They are the people you could have been had you set off from the same starter's gun but run side-step on a different trajectory.

But when you’re living the halcyon years of early childhood, your siblings are a sort of odd essential – most of the time they steal your stuff, your attention and your place next to Daddy on the sofa, but they are always there to share an incredulous, raised eyebrow at the nonsense of the world your parents are making you play in.

Obviously there are a few other deep-rooted emotions, in most cases, but on a day-to-day basis maybe the fact that my kids shared responsibility for ignoring the same cat might be a crucial factor in their relationship. The cat was certainly the only consistent reason for coming home from holidays for the past five years.

On a personal note, she gave me something specific to worry about during the medical nightmare that was my twins pregnancy – clearing up the toxic cat poo every week without my mother in law finding out. (As the famous French proverb goes, ‘Cats, flies and women are ever at their toilets’. Real proverb.) But she had to go, for medical reasons of a different, respiratory nature. And while there have been tears a plenty from the angry collective of under 9s, I realised as I found myself absent mindedly stroking her while finalising her transportation that I had never truly given myself up to her. She’s always been a cat, and my heart is made of ice.

The gorgeous little thing will be missed. And we’re getting fish after school today. They’re much easier to dispose of when the time comes.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


There are three kinds of mum friends. The ones you are pleased to bump into at the park, the ones you actually arrange to meet up with, and then the rare and wonderful ones who become real friends. Those women with whom baby talk can segue into relationship talk, work talk, life talk. All three kinds can be life savers. On a bad day, a friendly face pushing a swing next to you is all it takes to remind you that you are a sentient adult. A coffee with someone who is also navigating toddler tantrums or charting the waters of sleep and wakefulness in a new born is an invaluable support. But it’s that extra understanding that you get with some women which gives a unique space to be the thinking, political, funny person you are, without having to make any apologies for also being a mother.

I spotted my best mum friend across the circle at my first NCT meeting. My husband teased me over my new love affair, and I laughed along, but he tapped into the way I felt exactly. I had met my parenting soul mate, someone who was like me, was going to do it like me, and who wanted to be my friend. Our affair began while still pregnant when we hung back from the other women in the group, walking home from a pre-baby get together during the early days of maternity leave. As we took a different direction from the others, I knew that we would be friends, and I cherished it like a teenager. We romanced each other over coffee and cakes and strolls in the park. From baby massage to mini music we learnt our new trade together and slowly unpacked our lives in the process.

Being on maternity leave is a totally democratising experience. We were, in those early days, completely equal. Both at home, with our babies, with acres of time to fill. Bliss. Like any first flush of love, the beginning provides a canvas for you to paint a perfect portrait of yourself, leaving out the flaws and imperfections. But then it was time to go back to work. She to her high powered, long hours, high profile, high earning job and me to…

I have always been freelance, and my working life has been sporadic at best. Even before children, I was on maternity leave of sorts. I’ve never earned much money, had the need for office clothes, or had a job title. I’m a bumbler, and I probably always will be. My lack of direction and drive has been a constant disappointment to me and despite my best efforts and many sleepless nights, the desire to succeed has never been strong enough for me to really make decisions and push myself. Having children has provided a perfect foil for putting off my career once more.

So, career-free and newly abandoned by my friend, being on maternity leave morphed into being a Stay At Home Mum. Frustrated, bedraggled and with a new sense of desperation to get my house in order, I put it off again, and a second pregnancy followed quickly. And what joy I felt when I heard my friend’s voice on a crackly phone line saying “I think I need to talk to you about double buggies”. Not only would she be around during the little babyhood of my second but this meant we would be the same again! Forget the job, forget the money. We are mums of two – war vets – doing it together.

But the gulf was too wide to cross. We are still friends of course, and see one another regularly, but it has changed. Her second maternity leave was supported by her full time nanny who she kept on, so whilst I struggled on buses with the double buggy day in day out, she skipped off to mummy -and-me yoga and sat in coffee shops reading the paper. As I grew more tired, slower, more resentful, she sat back and enjoyed her newborn in a way that I could only dream of. And my attempts to fit us back into the same hole seemed more and more desperate by the day.

As even the just-coffee-mums can only squeeze me in on their one afternoon away from the office, I feel more and more like a Shirly Hughes drawing. I am living in Alfie gets in First, and all those around me are the busy working mothers that I presumed I would be. My mother-in-law who raised children in the 70’s doesn’t understand why I’m not organizing coffee mornings, and baby sitting circles, completely ignorant of the seismic shift in the lives of most middle class families over the last 30 years.

So what do you do when you are the one left behind? Hunker down and carry on potato printing? Cancel five years from your diary and mark your life “to be continued”? Move to the suburbs and make friends with the other Stay At Home Mums who I’ve done everything I can to distance myself from? Or finally make that shift and really start valuing what I do everyday, stop looking at my achievements as second rate, and start cheering every meal I make and every nappy I change as the vital acts that they are.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Strength in numbers

Last night I went for supper with a collection of really successful women – the lucky kind, who can sum up their life achievements in one word: doctor, barrister, novelist etc. I spent most of the evening waiting for my ‘About A Boy’ moment where everyone finds Hugh Grant charming until he admits to doing nothing for a living. This involved a lot of Cava drinking to ensure I was fully occupied every time it looked as though the conversation was leaning towards me and, specifically, my daily time sheet.

To be fair, there were also a significant number of equally successful women around the table who, like me, would have to do a rambling Ronnie Corbett-style explanation of their professional lives. And no doubt many of the one-worders would swap at least a couple of their pencil skirts for a few more after-school pick-ups. So there we are, back to basics: there is no way of doing it easily. The hardest bit about being a woman isn’t trying to have it all, it’s about trying to work out which bits you actually want anyway.

And if it’s hard for us, here’s evidence that we’re not making it any clearer for the next generation. One of my new high-achieving friends told us over supper that her daughter had written an essay at school using the word strident, and had come home delighted that the teacher had commended her for this. She’d informed the teacher that her mum used the word a lot because her mum was a feminist – and that her best friend probably wouldn’t know the word because her mum wasn’t. When my friend tried to assure her that this other mum was surely a feminist, she was told ‘She can’t be, she’s still married’. Ouch.

So, inspired by the vastness of other people’s experience, knowledge, understanding, confusion and amusing anecdotes, I have decided to stop navel gazing alone. My brilliant and talented friend Hazel will be appearing in the first ‘Guest Wednesday’ blog, and if she’s not cleared everything up by Thursday and you’d like to join the circus, let me know. Then next time someone asks, you can say ‘Blogger’.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Giving Up

Hands up who loves daylight saving? Not so much? I’m writing this at 5.47am according to the cuckoo, and I’m surrounded by children who think it’s well cool.

A few weeks ago we were tricked into buying ’fun’ wall lights for our 4-year-old boys. It was one of those euphoric Ikea moments where everything seems possible thanks to coloured plastic and insanely cheap prices. It was a classic rookie mistake of the kind rarely seen here in Bootcamp North London, where the ruling adults work on a mainly arched eyebrow ‘I’m sorry, you think your opinion counts?’ approach. The lights have, of course, been turned on and off constantly throughout the night, resulting in entirely unnecessary sleep deprivation and rows that we should have just had in Ikea in the first place like normal people.

It’s not been a great week for nerve endings. For the past seven days I have mainly given things up, sleep included. Caffeine, carbs, alcohol, fruit, sugar – it’s only for a fortnight of autumn detox but you can probably feel the tension.

So far, the lack of caffeine has done nothing visible for my skin, ripped my no-headache policy to shreds and had horrific effects on my husband – who’s also indulging in the big Give Up. What it has done, along with the shocking lack of alcohol, is put life into high definition wide screen perspective. This has in turn shed light on cavernous corners of my life that were festering nicely in the semi-gloom of a carb-infested existence. For instance, you might think that after 20 insignificant weeks of blogging, and a many not-so-spare hours researching other people’s offerings, I’d probably be a social networking expert by now right? Well sadly not. And in particular ‘the point of it all’ is still a bit of a haze.

But now, with a clear head and no clear direction, I have had time to read some really geeky books about the whole world of Web 2.0 in order to fully prepare for my genuine ‘big moment’ in the 21st century. The irony of the fact that I had to get a proper hardback book to learn this is not lost on me. Neither is the fact that, because of a very 20th century postal strike I had to get on an actual bus and go to an actual bookshop to get my virtual-life instruction manuals.

The main bit of info I’ve picked up – I can’t use the word virtual anymore, it’s sooo Dotcom. This whole gig isn’t about pretend shops anymore. It’s about real people, real-time streaming, real friends in every portal. Everything, including Wikipedia, is Internet fact, not virtual fantasy.

Next on my reading list is a history of Twitter. Yes, a history. I bet no-one in the Valley goes eight days without caffeine. How else would they squeeze five years of social coding into every Earth year. Meanwhile, I get an extra hour of pain each morning and a cup of mint tea.

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Age of Politics

When I first came to London as a student in the early 90s (oh, how much more romantic would early 60s sound…), being principled was as easy as getting dressed. In between leaving the Socialist Worker lying around and introducing myself as a vegetarian, I would trot around campus in my ‘No Means No’ date-rape campaign T-shirt with carefully trashed Doc Martins and hair the same shade of plum as my distressed mini skirt, and it was clear to everyone that I was fully opinionated and ready for heated debate.

Anger is a natural state for students, along with complete inertia – but when everything from the restoration comedy reading list to the choice of bottled beer in the SU bar needs to be challenged, a state of total apathy is essential every now and then to complement the turmoil of life.

This was a time when a love/hate relationship with Katie Roiphe was as far as you had to go into real-life issues to feel politicised and engaged. Wearing a T-shirt stating your beliefs could only make them stronger. But then it was time to graduate, and start putting money where there’d previously only been a need for mouth.

And with that came the gradual stepping down from the soapbox – in tiny almost imperceptible increments to start with. I was shopping for soft furnishings on Saturdays rather than rallying in Trafalgar Square, but I did set-up monthly direct debits to charities to help pay for someone else to do the legwork. New Labour and Nelson Mandela brought an abrupt end to most of my remaining political fury, and suddenly interest rates and promotions were the only things to get a bit bothered about.

So now, after two rungs on the property ladder, three children, several career hops and a couple of poignant birthdays, I no longer have a post-it note list of the things I’m going to change about the world today. I have a nagging sense of unease about some things, a desperate sense of anger about others, and lots of things conspiring to prevent me acting on either. I’d like to blame the kids, but we’re probably back in the realms of apathy.

Last night I had a very unsettling conversation with a very old friend, which made me question the whole issues of beliefs, and whether any of them are ever any more than paper thin. There’s no way you can progress through life with the same unwavering stance you held as a teenager. Everything changes and shifts as it ages – you, your opportunities, your understanding, your priorities and the world you live in. Although I’m not sure my friend would agree, I don’t think my basic principles have changed, but maybe my expectations have. Obsessing about which secondary school I’ll be allowed to send my daughter to is clearly a very personal use of my campaigning energy, and won’t contribute a huge amount to the greater good of society. But even when you’re 18 you have to pick your battles. And I do still have battles.

Maybe you just reach a stage in your life where you have to stop wearing your anger on your T-shirt. Then you won’t disappoint the people who have been around long enough to remember the original slogans.

Monday, 12 October 2009

The Working Day

Women eh? Honestly, you just can’t trust us to know what we want. Even after 38 years of being one (that’s my whole life, I haven’t switched), I am no closer to understanding what women want – not for more than about 20 minutes at a time, or the distance from Selfridges to a strong cup of coffee.

I have, for a while now, been complaining that working from home is not what I’m good at –that I miss the free posh water, the fresh-from-uni eye candy and the unmanageable hours of office-based earning. And then last Friday happened. Give me a rare chance to get out of my trainers and away from my lonely workspace and into a pair of heels and onto a train to an actual face-to-face creative meeting, and I spend the three preceding nights fully awake worrying about it. Not the creative meeting bit. I can do that my sleep, if I could get any. The heels bit (specifically which ones and how high is appropriate) and the train bit (specifically the inevitability of missing it after dressing three children, throwing out placatory pain au chocolate and leaving them with their father for the school run of their lives). What’s wrong with me? Isn’t this the dawn of a new life I’d been longing for? And do the answers to these clearly rhetorical questions involve the words controlling, neurotic, contrary, or is this just what motherhood does to us?

I remember going to meet my first new client after the babies were born (actually, two years after they were born). I spent the entire train journey close to tears after realising that my nail varnish was a bit chipped, and obviously the man I was going to meet was going to see this as a direct indication of my working style – sloppy, inattentive and possibly a little slutty. In retrospect, I’d be surprised if he even knew what I was even there for. Poor makeup application was not his concern. And the look on my husband’s face when I told him of my honest fears was not kind.

Having said that, as I left for my train on Friday, he suddenly announced his firm belief that I should go back to an office job. Based mainly on the heels. Actually, I think based entirely on the heels. It was clearly a while since he’d seen me face-to-face and with a hair do sans Weetabix. And while I don’t want to get all ‘Mad Men’ on you and imply that my day can be made perfect only by the wink of approval from a man with his own expense account, it did make me feel good. In the same way as I liked my daughter seeing me in a proper working outfit, heading off to save the world from the scourge of bad website copy. And I liked being let-off the school run for once, and turning left not right outside the house.

But I didn’t sleep for fear of all these changes. And this is when I have to admit that, for me, the working mum question is purely and simply one of routine. Going back to an office would offer me the glorious predictability, time sheets and weekly childcare schedules I can only dream about. However, if I work from home, I can earn, shop, lunch, web surf, spend every afternoon with the kids and still have precious time for all those domestic chores. I just need to embrace the randomness of each day, which after eight years of organising my life around the unbending schedules of mealtimes, nap times, snack times, playgroup times, bath times and over-night clothes washing to save any accidentally unstructured day time, is making me feel light-headed. It’s going to take some practice to remember the genuine pleasure of wearing heels before 8pm.

Monday, 5 October 2009

May contain shot

I know it’s statistically the most common thing to waste money on, but my monthly gym membership has now been completely unused since the start of the summer holidays and I have totally failed to get back into the habit of a morning run or humiliating high-kick around the aerobics studio since the kids went back to school. (I made up the bit about the statistics, but it seems like a reasonable assumption, along with the assumption that no-one will care enough to check.)

Also, my gorgeous basket-on-the-front bicycle is too dangerous to ride because a tiny screw has come out of the thingy that goes through the metal pole which holds the basket in place above the front wheel. Without blinding you with science, this means that the metal pole could slip through the front wheel spokes at any time and deliver me the kind of knee and elbow injuries I’ve not experienced since the mid-1970s.

On the positive side, our shower has finally been fixed. Which is actually one more reason not to go to the gym. And so the yin yang of my life is once more perfectly balanced. I have access to early-morning revitalisation in my own home, but still have a tiny screw missing from my bike, thus adding several sweat-filled hours of tube travel to any journey that could have been completed in minutes on my Dawes Heritage. Vitally, there’s still something to moan about.

I’ve started following a number of American blogs recently, and of the many excellent examples of wit- and sarcasm-soaked confessionals I’ve read, there’s a definite sense of optimism that I don’t believe you generally find in anyone working to Greenwich Mean Time. Daily life is a menu of rich pickings for amusing observations, irritating events and even painful repression therapy, but there’s no sense that any of it is an inevitable consequence of being American. Unlike us Brits who, banal as it sounds, still approach life with the attitude that if all else fails we might just make it to supper with nothing more than an unwarranted parking fine.

Reading the blog comments is the best way I can substantiate this claim. Most of the US ones are fairly unnecessary but wholly supportive. In fact, overwhelmingly complimentary. On even the most popular Brit sites, comments are either of the self-apologetic nature (sorry, I probably shouldn’t say this and it won’t be anywhere near as clever or funny as your post but…) or downright practical. Or, my particular favourites, the passive aggressive ‘why did you feel the need to share this’ type.

The other evening, I was at a very English restaurant in town ordering the very English game pie, and the waiter (nationality unclear) reminded me as he took my order that the pie ‘may contain shot’. Metal shot. Naturally I simply smiled my thanks and set about eating a supper that offered substantial risk of a bullet cracking my molar and necessitating months of NHS waiting rooms and overpriced yellowing crowns. Stiff upper lip, grin and bear it. Without a healthy portion of shot, life would be far too easy. And I’d be biking to gym without a grazed elbow to moan about.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Nothing trivial I hope?

A friend of mine was updating me this weekend on the progress of her American niece who’s just started High School. Being 15, she has to come home on the school bus, unlike almost everyone else in the school who has turned 16 and owns a car. In America, significant age markers are sensibly spaced. Unlike in Britain, where coming of age to legally drive, drink Southern Comfort and take the most important academic exams of your life happens within 12 months – something generally considered nothing more than a happy coincidence.

Anyway, the bus is called the Looser Cruiser, for obvious reasons of puerile High School amusement, and the previously status-happy niece is now living in a state of permanent mortification.

I also learned last week that the older brother of a child in my daughter’s class had been bullied persistently since the day he started at our lovely Ofsted-perfect primary school. ‘Until the day he left,’ according to his mum. Which was July, so it’s still all a little raw. And more than a little shocking.

I was bullied at school, fairly mercilessly for a fairly short time, and even in my world of perpetual self-criticism, I’m not really sure to this day why it was me. I was neither the prettiest or the cleverest, or the quietest or the strangest. I did however have a habit of thrusting my sleeves up over my elbows – regardless of the weather and in a slightly obsessive manner possibly – and this seemed to be the reasonable focus of months of unwanted threatening, lurking and hair-pulling behaviour. Funny what bothers a bunch of fourteen-year-old girls.

Bullying continued for me into the work place, but this time as a time-honoured extension of the women’s-magazine interview process. Surviving two years as the most junior female on the all-female staff of a weekly mag – when everyone else was old, face-lifted and snagging their cashmere on the way back down the ladder – was all part of a natural selection process that starts with The Lady and ends with Vogue. Unless you take a break for children, or fresh air.

And so it all goes down as good character-building stuff, lessons to learn from, reasons to drink, and amusing anecdotes to add to the after-dinner chatter. But suddenly now there’s my kids? How can I just leave them all day in a world where wearing the wrong coloured socks might be enough to turn them into victims of endless persecution?

I feel already as pained by the injustice of the bullying one of them will inevitably suffer as I do the inevitability that one of them will be the cause of another child’s pain. I know about girls, and I see the way they’re already skirting around the periphery of behind-the-hand whispering and three’s-a-crowd play dates. And even the four-year-old boys have got clear ideas about who they will and won’t entertain, based on truths unperceivable to even the most observant mother. They’re honing their skills right in front of us, and it’s going to be a long journey back to character-building.

Gentle bullying, teasing maybe, is a common thread in many of my most precious adult friendships. It’s the easiest way of saying ‘I love you’ to someone you’re not sleeping with, to show that you’re completely candid and irreverent about the weaknesses that make them special. But no form of bullying is without its pit-falls, and I have always been suspicious of the Eleanor Roosevelt school of self-belief, where no-one can hurt you or make you feel inferior unless you let them. It’s not true, not even with a decent therapist. No-one will stay hurt or inferior if they’re picked up and cuddled.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Happy (and) in bed?

My husband and I have a little game that we play in bed. I’m not clever enough yet to write blog-listings teasers, so that’s probably not as exciting as it sounds. But we do have a name for our game: ‘The Gin and Tonic Question.’ It’s very easy to play, mainly because it involves absolutely no action or reaction, and everyone’s a winner. The basic premise is to illustrate how happy you are to be lying in bed by naming your minimum price for getting up, getting dressed and – using only public transport – getting to a specific bar in Soho for at least one gin and tonic.

I say it’s a measure of happiness; since having children has taken our out-of-bed time in significantly different directions, it’s really an indication of gender. My husband will usually refuse to head back into town for less than £2,000, while I, having spent the day waiting for the evening, will often price myself no higher than the free gin. The tonic is negotiable, I’ll bring my purse.

I know happiness is subjective but I am a happy person. There’s even a scale of distance named after me. If I say something’s just down the road, or round the corner, that’s a good 20 minutes in the car to even the marginally less optimistic. But I still fall in love with my husband on a regular basis – even after 9 years 67 days, a stolen wedding dress (so not over that), two bloated pregnancies, three resulting children and a cat that we’re all allergic to. My life is good: I have amazing friends, I make money from doing what I love, and I think the pillar-box red tiles on our bathroom floor are inspired.

So it’s with real pain that I admit to having hit a bit of a wall. For the first autumn in hazy memory, I’m finding it really hard to get back into my London skin after the summer holidays. And I can see it in other people around me too. Resuming normal life is proving difficult, even by the end of September.

Maybe the problem is that I’ve just been too happy this summer. How’s that for Polly Anna? Gin-fuelled trips to Soho aside, it’s a truly wonderful thing finding yourself living the moment you knew would be one of your most content. And this is mine: Walking back to our holiday home in its French valley of sunflowers and chateaus, along a dusty track through a tiny vineyard, following behind my husband who’s carrying a bottle of 10-year-old local Pineau in one hand and holding the grubby fingers of his four-year-old son in the other, holiday hat on head, shoulders light and nothing but that evening’s dinner menu on his mind.

And then we’re home. And I’m suddenly in a world of anger and frustration because the ironing board hasn’t been packed away, or one of my children doesn’t have their shoes on by 9am. I have to find a way of using this memory to that get me through the damp, domestic winter months, and not use it to excuse countless sideways glances at the EasyJet winter-getaways site.

Alternatively, we just never leave the capital again, bring our reality back into a neat little box of daily contentment. I have a friend who was on holiday as a teenager with her single mum – a trip abroad that had no doubt taken months of planning and saving to provide – and as they walked around a gorgeous square one balmy evening she said dreamily, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we walked around that corner and we were back in England with all my mates.’

Monday, 14 September 2009

Beating the Baddies

There’s been a bit of a recurring theme in our family conversations this summer regarding the existence of baddies. I’m not really sure how it all started, although I have always had a pathological fear of haunted houses, so it might just be in the genes. With the youngest members of the family, concern has been based around the literal concept of goodies versus baddies, with the undeniable existence of specific people who only do bad things leading to some of my all-time favourite kid questions: ‘Why don’t baddies carry bigger nets?’, ‘Can all baddies drive cars without lids?’ and ‘Will you go to prison for eating toast from a bowl?’ (The latter is one of up to twenty questions a day regarding the finer details of the British justice system.)

My daughter’s understanding of evil has become more sophisticated, mainly thanks to Harry Potter and the Ginger Friend With One Expression. Even at eight years old, she understands that the baddies being so deftly levitated by young Harry are just metaphors for the real evil out in the real world. She doesn’t go to bed worrying whether her Latin pronunciation is clear enough to defeat werewolves and dementors. But she has started to ask for a detailed schedule of our evening plans, so she knows the exact time the house alarm will be going on and she's fully protected from the lunatics of north London. (Don’t be silly darling, not lunatics, not in north London…)

My own personal dealings with baddies have been in the form of demons, more specifically the expulsion of some. And not before time either. I don’t know why, but for some reason this summer I have been released from a whole host of demons – some irritating but playful, others most certainly from the depths of the Slytherin commonroom. For example, ever since falling on my face in a shameful alcoholic slump I have definitely stopped being so concerned about the 'shame' of the morning after. Self-preservation may have increased, self-analysis has significantly fallen. I am approaching my twentieth year of legal drinking and I still have friends. It can’t all be sympathy.

More interestingly (I hope), I have stopped trying to fit bad people into the good-shaped holes in my life. I have spent my life worrying about whether people like me, sometimes to a near psychotic degree. And now, this summer, I have realised that not all of these people are worth the pain.

My theory is this: We grow up, become young adults and start to pretend baddies don’t exist anymore, make excuses, shut our eyes, and take personal responsibility for all the bad stuff that surrounds us. But then suddenly our bright, insightful children start pointing directly at the baddies, who they can see as clear as day, and we are forced to accept their existence again. But this time it’s easy to defeat them, because we’re old enough not to be scared anymore. And we have very loud house alarms.

I have no intention of being confrontational about this. Accepting that there are people who I have tried very hard to like but who, it turns out, are pretty bad, is a very private victory. And they’ll certainly never know. There’s no way they would give up time to read this and show an interest in my life, but guess what, I don't care. Honestly.

Monday, 7 September 2009

The Waitrose Effect

When my twin boys were tiny, and opportunities for any emotion other than ‘impending doom’ or ‘actual doom’ were equally as tiny, I discovered I could change the course of a whole day with a trip to Waitrose. While the journey from home to store was often fraught with danger and disease (to a certain extent…) once inside the nicest supermarket in the world I was safe and ready for action. And swiftly it came.

As I waited, exhausted and broken, the scent of identical twin babies would waft through the air conditioning, drawing shoppers to me and my enormous double trolley. I was unmissable and they were unstoppable.

Things would kick off with a few accidental of smiles of genuine pleasure. People love it when life matches, and seeing the effect my identical babies were having would lift my spirits enough to start progressing slowly along the first aisle. Next would come a positive exclamation; ‘Oh, look, twins!’ This would be the tipping point for several gangs of elderly ladies to come forward eagerly for a closer look and maybe even an indulgent sniff.

In aisle three I’d catch the eye of a slightly more restrained 50-something lady who would give me a gentle smile and tell me I was doing a fabulous job and my babies were completely beautiful. And by the time I reached the fine wines, the staff would be commenting on my ‘incredible’ post-pregnancy figure and telling me how they’d always wanted twins and how I was the luckiest person they knew. And by then I knew they were entirely right.

I tell you this because I was in Waitrose today, and found the melancholy slightly overwhelming. My babies have just started school, and I am just me again.

My children are all desperate to age. They embrace every new sign of growth and achievement in their lives with such hunger. They constantly want to do more, to know more. But the truth is I have travelled so far from the person I was before they came that I don’t quite know how to cope with their independence. I wait for subtle signs of interest so I know which direction to encourage them in, but I have to manage my expectations to fit in around their already clearly defined understanding of themselves.

Unexpectedly, the selflessness I now have to maintain as a parent is more complete than when I gave up my job, my social life and all the hours in the day to wash bottles and change nappies. Then it was physical, now it’s emotional. I have been assimilated to motherhood for the long haul. And willingly so. There are a few moments each day when the vast freefall of a future without career signposts and monthly appraisals makes me light headed. But I simply don’t see my future in the way I used to, however much I might regret that. It’s not about having no ambition. It’s about finding an ambition that fits in with an overwhelming desire to be at the school gates by 3.30. Which is part of the melancholy of Waitrose. This new ambition also needs to provide a new way of getting attention.

Monday, 31 August 2009

A Brief Concern

There’s always something slightly unnerving about arriving home after a two-week holiday and finding your old life waiting for you, just where you left it, but somehow different. Our house always looks so much bigger and cleaner than I remember, which is handy as it provides the perfect antidote to all the ‘Let’s pack up and move to the countryside’ conversations that have fuelled the past fortnight. And seeing the cat lounging at maximum-moulting angle on the kitchen worktop induces an unfamiliar desire to pay her some attention as I’m flooded with homecoming sentiment.

And then comes the dark side to seeing my old life with fresh eyes. All the things that I’d stop noticing needed attention are flashing neon signs in the grey London sunlight. It turns out I still can’t play the piano, our house still isn’t in the catchment for a no-gun-policy secondary school and, oh my god, the walls are completely plastered with small dirty handprints that I had totally overlooked pre-vacation. Within ten minutes of arriving home late last night I was rummaging through the suitcase for a pack of babywipes to scrub a month-old mark off the wall of my study, a room I had no need to even enter for at least 48 hours with a bank holiday, four loads of washing and a boot full of French wine and chocolate to entertain me.

Stepping over the doorstep home is a guillotine-style end to the holiday for me, and normal life [aka domestic duties] must resume immediately or some unimaginable dire consequences will occur. I must unpack at least the kids’ suitcase before going to bed after a 14-hour journey home because it will be one less thing to do tomorrow. Tomorrow being the day I have to make several important diplomatic calls to the leaders of warring nations and review the government’s tax plans for the next quarter before distributing holiday gifts around the neighbourhood and repainting the hall, stairs and landing. Clearly I will have no time for unpacking. It must be done tonight.

I just need a way of hanging on to that feeling I get for the first five minutes when the real life we’ve returned to seems just a little bit skewed, a little bit bigger, and anything is possible. And if the house stays a little bigger, there will be room for the piano.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Mid-Summer Murder

It started when my husband suggested I might want a coffee rather than an ice cream. There are no circumstances under which this would be seen as an innocent menu alternative, but when you’re standing in a bikini on a bronzed-French-teenager-filled riverside beach half way through your hard-earned summer holiday, any implication that you should be concerned about your calorie intake is devastating to say the least.

The key words here are ‘half way though’. Had he attempted this suggestion a few days before we were coming home I probably would have rolled my eyes and reluctantly agreed to the coffee, no further discussion needed. But he picked the exact point of Mid-Holiday Melancholy, and he should have known better.

In normal life, feeling a bit tense, irritable, overweight, under appreciated is, well, normal life. But when these emotions appear after a week of holiday frolics, it’s unacceptable and hugely disappointing. And it’s then that I start to notice the cracks.

The wonderful feeling of freedom when the children insist that only normally-at-work Daddy sits next to them at dinner every evening has been replaced with the lonely suspicion that you’re a disliked and overpowering mother. And the expectation of fully replenished sleep banks has been replaced with the reality of aching temples and blood-shot eyes after endless happy nights sitting on the balmy patio drinking wine.

At Mid-Holiday point, I start to become emotionally burdened by the extra half stone that I promised myself last year I’d never bring away again. And I realise that none of the clothes I feel young, floaty and elegant in on holiday will ever make it out of the holiday bag at the bottom of my wardrobe in London.

But worst of all, the excited shouts of ‘That one!’ – which punctuate every car journey as each member of the family chooses their favourite rambling French farmhouse and reveals their master plan for a hermit farming existence or super tricky sunflower maze – make me question every single lifestyle decision I’ve ever made. I start to feel real melancholy about leaving behind all our friends and family to begin the new life that clearly everyone else desires so desperately, and only my love of a supermarket-in-walking-distance is preventing.

I don’t know whether MHM is a global phenomenon or a private world of pain, but luckily after a few hours of staring wistfully out of the car window it passes and I’m thrown, pulse racing, back into the holiday spirit. And I spot the perfect location for my boutique rural hotel. The A-list will love it.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Big Idea

So we’re in France, and it’s big. Everything is big in France, except maybe the population. It’s almost impossible to actually find a Frenchman in August. But the place is huge. I can report this with confidence after two full days of driving through entirely open countryside and vast landscapes in what has already become a big adventure.

We are two cars, four adults, five kids and nine French cookbooks heading in excited anticipation 787 km south from Calais in as few hours and Aire de Service stops as possible. Our friends’ car has a sat nav, DVDs with headphones and children with bladder control. We have a map with critical pages missing, children who wee like clockwork every 100 km and Banana Man at full volume behind the driver’s head rest. Experience in our car is all big.

It’s the bigness of France that I love. The towering grain refineries built proudly on hills on the horizon rather than hidden in a deserted valley. The huge sci-fi-esque wind farms in the middle of (another, yawn) area of outstanding natural beauty. Being charged fifteen quid to travel on a four-lane motorway where you’re lucky if you see another car other than the one you followed off the Eurotunnel.

(To be fair, this year’s trip south has been characterised so far by the opposite experience – it turns out that the French still all go on holiday on the same day, so we’ve been part of a truly big exodus towards Bordeaux. And lots of big queues.)

But in France even the smallest phrase has a big meaning and resonance for any long-time English Francophile. The first signposted Hotel de Ville surrounded by buckets of dusty pink hydrangers floods me with endless memories of family holidays and school exchange visits. And, just as the words Raspberry Beret (the song that got us through the 38º heat and congestion outside Tours) instantly transports me to a super-cool underground coffee house in the East Village where I’m sharing a double espresso with the greatest shop assistant of all time, so a simple motorway signpost to Chinon brings a light, velvety smile of recognition and a happy celebrity-grape-spotting leap of the heart.

Driving down through France is just like taking one of those Hollywood tours, only rather than looking at the security gates of endless underfed Americans you’re ticking off every great night you’ve ever spent enjoying a bottle of the world’s finest. The talent here is very real and, after Evening One in our little corner of Charente, the potential for the coming fortnight is enormous.

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Sky at Night

This Friday, Jupiter is going to be the closest it ever comes to the Earth when it reaches opposition. I learnt this not from my stay-at-home friend Google, but from an actual real person while sitting around a campfire in East Sussex on Saturday night. We were watching the most beautiful nighttime horizon with a huge orange rising moon alongside one very bright lone star. Which turned out to not to be a star, but a planet – Jupiter. And it was stunning.

I have always thought it would be interesting to know more about the night sky, but like many potential hobbies that involve dedication, research and memory, I have coped-out and kept it to a simple love of looking up. But on Saturday night I learnt enough about Jupiter in twenty minutes to inspire me into both a lengthy chat with Google and a trip to Waterstones’ astronomy department.

It’s become a bit of a trend with me recently – properly enjoying things I’ve proclaimed to loved for years but have actually just borrowed because they sounded cool and/or impressive. I honestly don’t think it’s laziness, more a confidence thing. If you have your own opinion, you’re exposed to debate, challenge and public shame. And debate and challenge have never been overly embraced in my family. Or public shame. So I’ve always taken the position of an optimistic life-lover – chatty conversationalist, rather than an expert in any one area of it. And now it seems that my strategy is paying dividends.

My theory is that I’m more comfortable collecting people than information. I have always been attracted to people whose influences are perfectly matched to my ambitions. Lots of my friends have instinctively turned out to excellent early adopters of all the things I can now say, hand on heart, that I love.

Assimilating other people’s interests is a handy skill to have. My favourite wines are actually the chosen wines of people who paid attention when they were drinking the local grape in rural French oyster shacks as teenagers. This was about the time I was worrying about whether my combination of white Wham jacket and cerise leggings was lost in translation at the campsite disco. My favourite music is handed to me on an i-Pod by people who take time to read the culture page reviews in the Sundays, or switch the radio on occasionally. And my favourite restaurants are invariably my husband’s – it’s hard to be discerning when you’re always drawn to the paella.

In fact, child rearing might be the only area where I haven’t relied compulsively on other people’s opinions. And, ironically, it’s since the babies started spending more time out of the house that my interest in the radio, the wine cabinet and the long-term implications of Peter Mandelson running the country have developed with more confidence.

And so, on Friday night, Jupiter will be in a perfect line with the Earth and the Sun, and (if you’re reading this in the northern hemisphere of course) can I suggest you pour yourself a glass of something fine and enjoy a view of the daddy of all planets that will make you glad to be alive. With my compliments.

Monday, 3 August 2009

The Bad Feeling

In our house, discussing anything other than breakfast before breakfast is like walking into a lamppost, but without the humour. Not one of us is fully constructed in the early morning, and even a murmured aside questioning the colour choice of a small hair clip can set off a chain reaction of fury, frustration and self loathing. It’s the same in most households I know made up of more than one person. One friend has parents who can (and do) discuss (extremely controversial) political issues (loudly) at any time of day or night, but can't discuss the chances of rain because it infuriates her so much that he's always so pessimistic about the weather. Tricky.

It might seem disingenuous, but learning which entirely necessary conversations should actually never happen is lesson 101 in maintaining a successful long-term relationship. In our house anyway. For us it’s either money or illness. Money is an obvious one, and it’s a bit of a no-go area at any time of the day when your contributing opportunities are as sporadic as mine. I have been known to choose wailing and chest-beating to nice man at First Direct over a quick chat with my pre-breakfasted husband about my secretly over-run overdraft.

Illness is a cross-family no-no. With the adults, any ache or pain shared aloud leads to an irritable diagnosis of over-drinking / eating / drinking and eating and generally having too much fun the previous weekend and getting too old to get over the effects by Wednesday. Livers and kidneys instantly start aching and breakfast in miserable silence is guaranteed.

With the children, the mention of illness has more troubling consequences. Handling the statement ‘Mummy, I have a bad feeling in my tummy’ is like being an explosives expert, and responding to it as a literal statement is entirely wrong. The implications of a tummy ache are messy and may have a financial inference, which is a breach of both forbidden subjects at once.

Allowing sentiment to dictate the way you handle a ‘bad feeling’ can be a time consuming mistake. For example, have you feed the child something they can’t tolerate? This will lead to weeks of investigative meal-making. Or have they been exposed to a bug? A yes here could lead to days off school for them and hours of unpaid CBBC watching for you.

The correct way to respond is with a short, kind glance and a special chat about how everyone feels bad sometimes but, whatever it is that your child needs to confess to, they’ll still be a loved and valued member of the family.

Monday, 27 July 2009

The Finishing Line

For me, one of the most disappointing things about myself – second only to the fact that I have a list of the most disappointing things about myself – is that I’m a finisher not a starter. Lots of my close friends are starters; really creative starters, with a capital C. Artists, TV makers, theatre directors, interior designers, I hang out with them all. I think that’s what attracts them to me: the knowledge that when they get bored of an idea I’ll take it, tidy it up, file it and send it off with a clean invoice.

It’s something I used to worry about a lot, when I was still busy carving out a career in a world full of natural creatives. My most successful career progression to date came from an interview for a dream editorial job on a monthly glossy. Without intending to, I managed to confide in them that I would be rubbish at the job, but I’d make an excellent managing editor, something they weren’t actually looking for. I think the exact phrase was, ‘I’d love to be the artistic type you’re looking for but actually I’m just dead good at schedules.’ They hired me, and I organised for several happy years.

Having children is like taking a master class in starter-hood. But even after several years of extremely productive starting, the moment that I’ve closed the bedroom door on a successful day of feeding, entertaining and instructing is my maternal high point. Much more so than the ‘Oh joy, here comes the paint’ moments.

And, as I slide rapidly from newborn motherhood into the endless life-lessons phase, I’m realising that by definition I need the ability to see the bigger picture, and not expect to have things tied up nicely by the weekend. I think I’m predisposed to tackle motherhood as a project with lots of successful endings, rather than a process with lots of exciting beginnings.

More of a concern though is how this finishing instinct has continued to develop in the rest of my life too. I know we’re all inclined to shut the front door and get into our pyjamas at 8pm on occasion, but I think I have become truly professional at avoiding starting anything that I can’t finish before Newsnight. The fact is that there are several phone calls I should make at the moment, but I don’t have the ability to solve the problems or take away any of the pain at the other end. So I’m simply avoiding the issues, and hoping that someone with a more creative approach to life is finding the right words where I’m not. Then I can just send them a thank you card when it’s all over.

Monday, 20 July 2009

The Involuntary Throw

‘Welcome to my world’ is a phrase I don't really like. It’s a lazy devise used by smug under-stressed people who are fully aware that the situation they’re describing is one most of us would swap our washing, ironing and aging relatives for in a second. It also seems to imply you’re not living in the same world with the same glamorous levels of pressure and responsibility in the first place, which is rarely true.

Most of the time it’s actually just a friendly, conversational devise I know, it’s just that’s not the way I’ve heard it used in the past half an hour…

Anyway, welcome to my world: first day of the summer holidays so, of course, exciting bit of new and extremely time-consuming business on the horizon, all potential play-dates settled in Italian villas for the duration, and swine flu. Well, sore throats and bad tempers at the moment, but I’m preparing for the apocalypse. And things are getting tense already.

There are lots of things you learn about yourself when you become a parent that you would never have been able to guess before entering your first labour ward. Many are good, most involve crying, and some are destined to shape the next decade of your life in their persistent presence. For me, the latter is my inability to remain calm when objects are being thrown. And the knowledge that objects will be thrown regularly and at random from now until early September has been the backdrop to all the waking time I’ve spent with my children over the past week.

In my experience, the involuntary throw will take one of two classic forms. The first is an unconscious movement on a trajectory in direct opposition to the line of sight. It usually occurs when the child is consumed by a brightly lit TV screen but simultaneously feels the need to dispense of a juice cup, so hurls it over the shoulder without thought for what lies behind. This is your everyday involuntary throw: it’s easy to master, it isn’t age exclusive, and it’s the precursor to the common habit of dropping clothes neatly on the floor just inches away from the wardrobe or washing basket when you’re all grown up.

The second occurs when the child is holding something with excellent aerodynamics while standing within target range of a family heirloom, designer lampshade or aging relative. In this case the throw itself is a conscious movement, but the desire to hit the target is involuntary and deeply instinctive. In this case, no amount of screaming or power staring can prevent the inevitable.

In both instances, my response is always several minutes of irritable shouting using vocabulary based on responsibility and guilt that’s aimed at a child at least five years older than the one in front of me. Which doesn’t make anyone feel any better.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Blogging Blog

This weekend I decided to learn how to increase readership on my blog. There is of course a huge bloggy industry in place to teach me exactly how to write a blog so successful I can live on virtual ad revenue for the rest of my days. So clearly the first excellent piece of advice is to write a blog about how to write blog. The appetite for self-exploration of the art of blogging seems to be insatiable. However, the appetite for actual real-world self-exploration, which is my slightly reluctant category admission, is tiny. If indeed a thing. I wouldn’t even register on Ad Words.

I realised this after finding that the first two pieces of advice on all blog-making blogs were no.1: Make it clear what you’re marketing / selling / pushing and no.2: Keep it short and frequent, with daily drops and constant updates. Even I don’t want to give myself that much attention. And if I did, I’d be disregarding handy hint no.3: Make sure your style and content is high quality, interesting and readable.

My problem is well documented and standard dinner-party material for any www.immigrant – I simply don’t get it. Even if I understood how it all worked, I don’t understand how people would know to look for me. It’s Sunday morning, you’ve got your coffee and your papers and the same old familiar faces will be there to entertain you in the same page position, type-face and word count as last weekend. These lucky writers have no need for suggestion no.4: Join a blog circus. What?

Is it possible that I’m the wrong generation, already? When my daughter was little, a colouring book and crayons were the restaurant essentials. Now her four-year-old brothers have a whole different routine: order juice, remove all ice from juice, position bendy straw at perfect angle, unlock the iPhone, choose the most suitable app for mood (ie car racing game or chill-out music video), sit quietly for an hour and a half while parents enjoy an uninterrupted supper and worry obsessively that their children have lost the ancient art of pestering and bickering.

Which I think is now known as Twitter. The constant stream of second-hand information about stuff that other people have done all day while you weren’t looking. A great deal of my time is spent hearing about what my loved ones have been experiencing first-hand while my reality is mainly borrowed. It’s a comfortable position to take. However, it’s getting me nowhere. I’m off to join the circus. Tomorrow.

Monday, 6 July 2009

A Life More Extraordinary

In an attempt to look busy in a less casually-dressed way, I have taken on a small interior design project. I’m reinventing my husband’s boardroom so it stops looking like a boardroom, working with little more than a lot more design acumen than I actually have.

So it’s a jolly around Alfie’s Antiques market searching for that elusive bargain Chesterfield. Meanwhile, another wave of acquaintances are packing-up their 3-seaters and relocating from the bright lights of Zone 2 to the leafy beyonds, and beyond that even. More bedrooms, bigger gardens and a mortgage equivalent to a Hampstead parking permit are the main reasons. A strangely displaced feeling and a sense of foreboding seem to be the main outcomes so far.

But it’s those of us left behind who feel most uneasy about these migrations, as we’re forced to justify the conditions and expense we continue to choose over all the attractions of Not-London. It’s quite tricky to articulate why the smell of Holloway Road is more invigorating than a freshly cut meadow.

I do often feel a sense of un-attachment to my surroundings – by which I think I mean daily reality. It’s like the strange sensation of hearing three small people breaking into my bedroom at 6.45am, whispering about whether I’m awake. The reality of their existence comes as a new shock each morning. The fact that I live in a city still catches me sometimes like an aerial reveal of Central Park in the opening credits of yet another film. It’s just cool, and it just makes you smile.

Part of the reason I love living in London is that I have to work less hard at being considered interesting. You just sort of assimilate your surroundings: the closer you live to famous shops, national galleries and BBC outside broadcasts, the more culturally aware, politically opinionated and generally on-trend you must be.

And it’s also an accepted assumption that city life is hard work, which makes me a bit tough as well as a bit cool. Since researching soft furnishings for the boardroom, I’ve found that if a sofa is angular, to huge to fit through a front door and so firm it’s actually painful to sit on, it will be called Capital, or Modular, or Awkward. If, however, it’s so soft and floral that it threatens to eat you alive with incestuous gossip and church fundraisers, it’s definitely designed for anyone living outside a pizza delivery zone.

Everyone I know is striving for the life less ordinary, and rightly so. And you can’t buy that with a postcode. Even the less ordinary quickly becomes average when there are hundreds of other people doing the same less ordinary stuff in the same less ordinary neighbourhood. But when your general outlook is as absurdly Polly Anna as mine, and your need for clear signposting towards the road less travelled as great, a north London doorstep is the start of the yellow brick road.

Monday, 29 June 2009

The Girl Is Mine

It’s 9.22 on Monday morning and already the weight of accumulative small failings is too heavy a burden for my delicate parental ego. So far the list of things that, with nothing but childcare and domestic duties to concern me, I have still been unable to perform satisfactorily, includes: not enough bread for both toast and packed lunches; five disgusting choices of cereal; homework too hard to complete while cleaning teeth; sun cream too runny for four-year-old self application; recycled cotton school bag lost and capital punishment guaranteed for a plastic-bag option; wrong top brought downstairs for eight-year-old daughter.

This last one is the most serious, and I suspect highlights the common thread running through all my other failings. I need to stop showing my kids how much I care about the little things. I’ve made it too easy for them to grind me down by picking out their own socks.

We had some friends over for supper a few weeks ago and, after struggling to put the kids to bed, I came down full of indignation about how rude and difficult my daughter was being. She was too hot to sleep, and rather than take my sensible advise of less clothes and no covers, she chose to sleep upright with three pillows and a sparkly cushion to cool her down.

The list of horrific things that can happen to a small girl trying to sleep upright is long and ugly, and obviously I informed her of each painful option, covering myself for the ‘I told you so’ conversation that would come later when she was sobbing with repentance in my arms. After hearing the whole story, my friend was unmoved. Wouldn’t she lie down if she was uncomfortable? Wouldn’t I rather have a glass of wine?

But then I wouldn’t have passed on any advice. What about my needs? And I wouldn’t be able to sit downstairs actually feeling how comfortable she was, and know that her duvet would be in exactly the right position when she reached for it in the cooler hours of the morning.

It’s empathetic control beyond the realms of sanity. And I don’t do it with the boys, or at least not as much. At four they don’t get it quite so wrong, maybe. Clearly I’m the one behaving badly, and I need to back down, back off and stop barking. The chasm between super-strict mother and menopausal best friend is a tough one to rattle around in, and the truth is that no-one can make an eight-year-old girl happy unless you invite her friends for tea.

But it’s not really about control. I don’t think I get it right all the time at all. More likely, I’m terrified my daughter will get it wrong in all the same places I did, and will look back and wish she’d known at eight how to be that bit more savvy. Living vicariously through your daughter and trying to train her to be the confident, cool teenager you probably weren’t – now there’s a new one… I’m sure we weren’t the only mother and daughter listening to Thriller and practising eyeliner application all weekend. 1982: RIP.