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Confessions of a spanking good half term

Chips photo

As I get more and more school holidays under my belt, I feel less of a need to justify why we didn’t conquer Mount Everest or deliver newborn lambs in half term week. Bloggers write an awful lot about their guilt in order to seek reassurance from their peers and be a Better Parent. Mostly it’s self-flagellation. It’s not about the well-being of the kids: it’s about measuring yourself on the yardstick of perfection that is waved in our faces by the internet and social media. It’s time to grab that yardstick and snap it in half.

Let me tell you this: what you’re about to read wasn’t written to make myself feel better. It was written to make you feel better – to let you know that it’s okay. Really, it’s alright if you didn’t take a photo of your kids frolicking in snowdrops and apply Instagram’s Vintage filter with a smidgeon of a vignette. (Vintage because that makes life look retro and kids were so much happier in the olden days when they could race across open fields and only return home for tea, etc, etc, blah blah blah.)

It’s time to stop using other people’s Facebook timelines as a must-do-or-I’ve-failed guide to activities to cram into the school holidays. Your children will not be disadvantaged in their future life if you choose iPad time over roller skating the Inca Trail. Another episode of Paw Patrol will not cast them onto the educational scrapheap. (Many apps are highly educational and played alongside Candy Crush and Panda Pop will balance your child out as comfortably mediocre.)

Here’s a fancy infographic for you. It’s the first time I’ve done one and I can reassure you that no children were harmed in the time it took me to do it. They were not knocking over pans of boiling water or sticking their fingers in plug sockets as they revelled unsupervised.

half-term-infographic-copy

There you have it. I’ve done my little bit to make parents feel moderately better. (And that’s only half term – just think of what you won’t achieve in the summer holidays!) If I were to now fall off the sofa and die, the old Cheerio in the rug that I inhale with my last breath would be utterly worth it.

The Syria crisis: just imagine if it was you – #SaveSyriasChildren

refugee crisis

Surely no one can fail to be affected by recent images in the media of the desperate plight of refugees trying to reach Europe and safety. Terrible as these images are to see, they force the rest of the world to recognise that this isn’t only a political or economic issue – it is about real people. Ordinary people who had homes, families and livelihoods are at the heart of this terrible situation. If you think about it then, yes, it could have been you. And if it was, how would you feel if those who could help hesitated or simply didn’t help?

For me, the crisis in Syria isn’t just about a foreign country. It is about the people I met there. In 2002 I spent two weeks in Syria visiting the major cities and towns and, of course, ancient Palmyra. It is a country I rate as one of my favourites, where the constant refrain of “You must come back when you have children!” led me to believe that one day I would return. Sadly, it is now unlikely that this will be possible in my lifetime and if my children ever get there it will be a very different place.

What strikes home when I watch the news is that the lives of the Syrians I met have been turned upside down. Sadly, I have no idea if they are alive or dead. Is the hotel where we stayed in Aleppo still standing? Most likely not. But what happened to the hotel owner whose sideline in pharmacy I will be forever grateful for after I fell ill and he supplied the drugs that brought me back from what felt like the brink of death? Or the hotel staff who brought me rice and potatoes for days when I couldn’t get out of bed? These were people who didn’t hesitate to help me when I needed it.

At every stop we encountered people who made our visit special. There was the family in Hama who welcomed us to their table and shared a feast of pomegranates. What happened to them? Hama had already experienced a terrible massacre in 1982 when an uprising against the government was quashed by the then president Hafez al-Assad. Some sources put the death toll at as many as 40,000. It was something no one dared speak of in Hama and there was no evidence or recognition of it ever having happened. Back in 2002, the men in the photograph must have thought that they had already seen their fair share of bloodshed.

Syria crisis

What happened to the amazing guide who showed us around the funerary towers in Palmyra? Was he there to witness the devastation when IS blew them up today?

Syria crisis

Then there are of course the children who in 2002 thought they had their whole life ahead of them. Despite living under a dictatorship it was at least a time of peace with the prospect of a future. It is horrific to consider what these children must have seen in the last few years and the fear they have endured. Are they still there? Have they ended up in the camps in the countries bordering Syria? Are they currently trying to board a train in Budapest?

Syria crisis

As an individual it may feel as if there’s little you can do. However, there is lots that you can do from the comfort of your own home. Please don’t turn a blind eye. Do something to help. Anything. Whatever you decide, don’t choose apathy.

You can donate to Save the Children’s Syria Crisis Appeal online here or to donate £5 simply text SYRIA to 70008. (You can find Save the Children’s terms and conditions here.)

 

 

 

The unbearable heaviness of right and wrong

Clouds

Becoming a parent changes you in funny ways. You become more prone to tears – Christmas adverts always get me – and more susceptible to the cuteness of bunnies, kittens and videos of babies doing funny things. But there is also the other extreme. You can become hardened and more conservative with a lower case C. Wrongdoing and the ills of society become amplified and the overwhelming instinct to protect your offspring kicks in.

I’ve never been a supporter of the death penalty. There can be too much room for error and an eye for an eye isn’t a concept of justice that I feel comfortable with. It is with shock then that I sometimes find myself thinking – totally against my principles but entirely aligned with my instincts as a parent – “If you hurt my children then I will want to kill you”.

Watching the excerpt from film-maker Leslee Udwin’s documentary on the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in Delhi in 2012, my heart literally felt like it was being squeezed. I could hardly breathe. I wanted to cry. This wasn’t just anger and revulsion at what had happened but also despair at the evil humans are capable of. Then there was the lack of remorse from one of perpetrators of the attack. Can the human brain malfunction so fundamentally so as to not be able to recognise basic right from wrong? In the cold chill you’re left with, it makes you wonder what kind of world you have brought your children into.

Who should be blamed? Should it be the perpetrators’ parents? (Perish the thought I could bring up a child who could commit such an act.) Do the skewed views on women in a particular society make such behaviour acceptable or understandable? No. By shifting the blame we gift them a lack of responsibility. When it comes down to it, humans should know right from wrong. Regardless of what beliefs your society has bestowed on you, surely there must be something in every human mind – however small, however buried – that flickers to tell you that you are about to do something vile, something inhumane. To make someone cry for help, to rape, to murder is wrong. There is no way of justifying it and, ultimately, no one to blame other than the perpetrator.

I’ve always thought that the death penalty could potentially do society a huge disservice. What if the condemned person had gone on to do good? What if someone we executed had instead spent their life in prison searching for a cure for cancer and found it? That’s not an eye for an eye – that’s an eye for millions of eyes. Perhaps a far-fetched and unlikely scenario but it’s a valid point worth contemplating. Who are we to take that potential away?

Yet for this scenario to occur, someone needs to make a judgment call on whether a person should and could be rehabilitated. To judge how someone will feel or how much they can give back to society 5, 10, 50 years down the line can only be a guessing game. Sadly, Leslee Udwin’s documentary suggests that Jyoti Singh’s rapists weren’t going to sit in a prison for the rest of their lives feeling repentant, dwelling on how wrong their behaviour was. There is no punishment in that. Why then shouldn’t the death penalty be the most appropriate justice? There is nothing they can contribute to the world other than to fuel anger.

Of course, the death penalty is murder too – there is absolutely no getting around that. In an ideal world it simply wouldn’t exist as there is so much more wrong with it than there is right. But somewhere inside I still want to protect my children. I want to eradicate the world of people who can commit such acts as that in Delhi and who probably wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. It’s a frightening way to be made to feel and it creates an uneasy conflict in my own beliefs in what is right and wrong. I am unsettled by it and I am certainly not proud.

Take Me Out: a feminist’s dream?

ITV dating show

Take Me Out. It riles me. It grates with all my principles. It makes me feel embarrassed. Most of all, it makes me fear for the giant steps that women are currently making through campaigns such as This Girl Can and No More Page 3 (if you ignore the childish and aggressive behaviour of The Sun with regard to the latter). If I have these concerns then why do I continue to let my 6-year-old daughter watch Take Me Out? It’s all about the lessons she can learn.

“There’s a boy and a girl and if they switch their light off they don’t like him and then there’s one person left and they go on holiday to Fernando’s.” That’s how a child sums up the premise of Take Me Out, ITV’s 21st century (apparently) dating show. Simple, innocent, unquestioning. Of course, it’s great Saturday night entertainment and along with many other forms of entertainment where women aren’t given credit for having anything other than breasts, make-up and a desperate desire to meet Mr Right, many would say that it should just be treated as a bit of light-hearted fun. (Which brings us back to Page 3.) But as with many media portrayals deemed harmless and fun – think back to the racism in British TV shows in the 1970s – the potential for lasting damage, particularly on impressionable minds, is serious.

Why do I let my daughter watch it? Because her cranky mother with her feminist leanings sits next to her and provides a social commentary. Hands up – I enjoy the show. I enjoy it not because it makes me feel good about being a woman in 2015 but because of the constant amused disbelief it generates. It pleasurably raises my hackles and gives me full licence to pontificate to my daughter about everything that is wrong with the programme.

You shouldn’t judge people on their looks alone

In the last episode we watched, the majority of the girls switched off their lights on first sight of the man. What a blast to his self-esteem. We all form an immediate opinion of people based on first impressions – that’s normal – but we have to learn to recognise that shortfalling and then think beyond it.

“Won’t those girls who switched off their lights be really sad when they find out what a nice, interesting man he is?” I venture. Her argument was that the rules say you’re allowed to switch your light off in the first round – “No likey, no lighty, Mummy”. A rule’s a rule and I should probably be proud that she respects that.

It takes some effort to explain to a 6-year-old why it isn’t acceptable to judge someone based on how they look; they are still taking the first steps in developing empathy and mostly they are the centre of their own universe. Yet it doesn’t hurt to prod them in the ribs with a not-so-gentle reminder of how cruel TV ‘entertainment’ can be.

“Look mummy, she’s got trousers on”

As we watched the parade of girls at the beginning of Saturday’s show, I started to tut (quite rightly) about how they’d forgotten to put some of their clothes on. My daughter countered that the studio was probably quite hot. Fair point, but I went on to say how much better they would look dressed a little more … elegantly. My daughter told me that I’m not as stylish as the girls on Take Me Out. And they’re at least 20 years younger than me, dear daughter, and, as they are single and in all likelihood childless, they have a disposable income to deploy on looking ‘stylish’.

All is not lost though. When my daughter pointed out that one of the girls was actually wearing trousers (skin tight but at least no flesh on display) I congratulated myself with unashamed smugness that some of what I’ve preached might just be sinking in.

Fortunately, my 3-year-old son has no interest in Take Me Out. If he did then, yes, I would let him watch it too. And, yes, I would be equally keen to point out its inadequacies to him – perhaps with more vehemence than with my daughter. Part of that is that, whilst inequality continues, women are in dire need of help from men. It’s not up to women to fight alone but it will take more than Ed Miliband and Benedict Cumberbatch wearing t-shirts with slogans to force change from the roots up. Perhaps Take Me Out is another small step to educating the men and women of the future, providing we’re savvy enough to use all that is bad about it to do good.

2015: the year of channeling Elsa

Frozen

I like to have a New Year’s theme rather than resolutions. 2015 will be no different. But where to find a theme? It’s not until you have small children and are denied exposure to deep philosophical musings that you are by necessity forced to find meaning in Disney. Only when you reach this state can you consider adopting a song from Frozen as a mantra. And so it is that 2015 is the year of letting it go.

Thankfully, my daughter didn’t succumb to the Frozen obsession so I don’t tear my hair when Elsa lets rip on the mountainside. In fact, it still brings a tear to my eye as a good power ballad should. If I’m going down the song route for a theme, I could have adopted Ms Swift’s decision to ‘Shake It Off’ but quite frankly that’s something you do with dandruff or a nasty cold.

When 2015 makes me feel a bit arsey, I’m going to make the conscious decision to ‘let it go’. Or – as Gwynnie and Chris might put it – I’m going to consciously uncouple with anything that makes my hackles rise. This isn’t just about other people (and I’m thinking specifically of you here Man in Seat 11B). It’s about letting go of the self-inflicted time-wasting, procrastination and naval gazing that often sees me reach the end of a day having achieved very little at all. That can be a kingdom of isolation and it looks like I’m the queen. (Ahem.)

What else will I be focusing on?

LET IT GO: Checking Rightmove. An affliction of St Albans residents who are prone to an eternal preoccupation with house prices (when not worrying about school catchment areas). Rightmove searches simply confirm that (a) you don’t get much for your money here, and (b) that the truly rich really do have very little taste.

LET IT GO: Parental guilt. The Big One, often felt to be insurmountable. Letting go of this should not be confused with a lack of interest in your children or with allowing them to eat cheese strings and wear pyjamas to school every day. Letting go of parental guilt means not turning in/on yourself when your child doesn’t have anything planned for after school on a Wednesday and you don’t use that time to stuff their reading diary with Dostoevsky.

LET IT GO: Online groups for mums. Obviously I’m not referring to my hometown for our group is an unparalleled example of harmony and commonsense. If I were witness to any ugly online behaviour (which again I must stress I am not) from women with too much time on their hands, I would certainly be trying to let go of the overwhelming urge to bang their heads together.

There are some things that I will not be letting go of in 2015. First, my pelvic floor muscles. I’m still working on those (thanks kids) but fortunately I’m not in Elsa’s position of not being able to hold it back anymore. Secondly, myself. This New Year theme shouldn’t be confused with actually letting myself go (which is something I’ve pretty much done already and is thus no challenge).

On that note – as, with a mouthful of chocolate orange, you pour the residual Christmas booze down the sink before heading off down the gym – I wish you all a very Happy New Year and a calmer, less buttock-clenching 2015.