Children’s birthday parties are exhausting

That’s it. The milestone I was dreading has come and gone. We have a lot of ‘seven’ left to go, but that initial mountain has been climbed and conquered.

Not made any easier by the organisation of the birthday party, because some bright spark thought that’d be a great idea.

For some reason, when I do stuff like this, I don’t like to do it by halves. Why buy a couple of frozen pizzas, some biscuits and sausage rolls when you can make your own pizza dough, bake your own mini quiches (that none of the kids will eat anyway), dip pretzels in chocolate and create breadstick ‘sparklers’..?

sparklers-and-pretzels

And indeed, why stop there? If making your own party food isn’t hassle enough, why not spend 3 days building an elaborate rainbow layered My Little Pony birthday cake featuring fondant icing that you will inevitably roll too thin so will fall apart when you try to put it on the far-too-tall birthday cake…

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Still, I’m nothing if not a show off. And we got through the party without death, disease or tragedy, so it’s a win for a month that has been otherwise pretty crap so far.

And I only drank 4 glasses of vodka & lemonade to get me through it.

Seven

My daughter turns seven years old on Monday.

It’s a milestone I’ve been dreading for some years. Seven years old.

I have organised a party. A disco with music and lights. I’ve bought glow sticks, I’m making a buffet and building a rainbow My Little Pony layer cake. I’ve told her to invite all her classmates. I have bought all the presents that seven year old girls like (hopefully).

Because I want my little girl to remember seven for the year she had an awesome birthday. I want my little girl — my sensitive girl who’s still afraid of the dark, who still likes to cuddle when she’s sad, who still likes her sandwiches cut into little triangles, and who has me sit with her while she falls asleep — my sweet, innocent little girl to remember seven for the year she got to party in sequins and eat pizza and cake with her school friends.

I don’t want her to remember seven as the year a sexual predator with alleged child sex offences won the US presidential election, further normalising the continued treatment of women and girls as objects.

I don’t want her to remember seven as the year a sexual predator with alleged child sex offences won the US presidential election, in part because of votes from a majority of white women, who statistically many of whom have been sexually assaulted but don’t see it as an issue that should affect their vote, demonstrating the further normalisation of the continued treatment of women and girls as objects.

I had hoped that by the time my daughter reached seven, the world would be different. Better. That I wouldn’t have to worry about her potentially experiencing the shit I went through when I was seven.

Because I don’t want her to remember seven as the year she was sexually assaulted for the first time. Like I do.

I wanted better than this.

Rachael Hill: Britain’s Best Allotment

After blogging at the beginning of the month about my belief in autonomous parenting and independent play, a big part of which involves chucking the kids in the garden and letting them get on with it…

…I was really excited to read about the recent winner of ‘Britain’s Best Allotment Competition‘. (The competition ran from Feb until July 2015. Created by HIPPO, national waste management experts and inventor of the HIPPOBAG, to generate greater awareness of the many benefits of owning an allotment.)

Anyway, the winner was a lady called Rachael Hill, who keeps the allotment with her family. Geoff (dad) does the manual labour, and then 3 of Rachael’s children help out every day as well as having their own raised beds, which has encouraged them to play independently and learn by themselves, and given them responsibility for their own little patch (and produce!)

Rachael's boys on the allotment
Rachael’s boys on the allotment

But a family allotment is not what fascinated me about this story: it’s the fact that Rachael is an Ofsted registered childminder, and does a lot of her minding ON the allotment. This is awesome to me for two reasons:

1) Because I occasionally make an effort to grow veg etc — although the chaos of the past couple of years has seen my raised beds turned over to weeds and brambles! — I know how much hard work is involved in keeping just a small amount of land weed-free, watered and tidy. To do this with an entire allotment whilst juggling work and family etc is impressive.

2) Because despite encouraging my kids to get in the garden and get dirty, they mostly kill more plants than they grow. To be able to turn that around and grow your allotment to prize-winning status with the “help” of both your own kids and mindees is doubly impressive.

My two in their native habitat: Oliver, 16 months "helping" and Isabel this weekend surveying her jungle
My two in their native habitat: Oliver, 16 months “helping” and Isabel this weekend surveying her jungle

Rachael won £1000 of gardening vouchers and a HIPPO clear-up for the whole allotment site. The members of the allotment committee are working to tidy up an area with a high level of fly tipping on the site so that they can turn it into a community area for all members to enjoy, and a much safer environment for children.

I have to admit reading about Rachael’s win has inspired me to get off my bum and finally do something about my back garden, but it’s unlikely I’ll be winning any prizes any time soon…

How I got 20,000 hits a day (and lost them all again)

Once upon a time, in a period best described as responsibility-free and with plenty of disposable income (AKA before I had children), I had a “reasonably” popular blog. Yes, this one. As crazy as it sounds to those of you who’re new readers (i.e. started reading within the past few years), it’s true, and you only have to look at the triple-figure comments on some of my old posts to get an inkling of what that meant. This was in a time where Twitter and Facebook were in their infancy, not capable of making a post viral worldwide in the blink of an eye like today, but niche interest posts could pull in 20,000 or more unique hits through StumbleUpon, Digg and the like.

So how did I achieve 20,000 unique hits in one day?

I blogged regularly

I would often blog daily (without having to set myself daft challenges) and sometimes even more than once a day. Not just short pieces either, some of my older entries were thousands of words long. Frequent updates meant people regularly came back to read new posts because they knew I would have updated.

What went wrong: after having Isabel, when time at the keyboard was in short supply, I favoured quick bursts of social media posts over my blog. People stopped checking for new posts, Google’s bot popped in less regularly, and hits slowly dropped.

I was active on StumbleUpon

stumbleupon_logoI would easily spend hours several times a week clicking through page after page on StumbleUpon, leaving thumbs-ups and reviews. Because of this I gained authority and a small following, which meant that when I had something I knew would pique interest to share from my own blog I could easily have it distributed to hundreds of people very quickly. Because StumbleUpon works by finding pages based on user-submitted interests, it was almost guaranteed that the content you submit would end up in front of the audience it was aimed at. Targeted content meant happier visitors.

su-tshirt-hits

What went wrong: I stopped using StumbleUpon (again, time was the issue) which meant I lost my following, and this meant that there was no ‘power’ behind my shares when I tried to boost my own content.

I read (and commented on) a lot of blogs

Commenting was the number one way to get a blogger’s attention, and there was a big “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” attitude to commenting. Generally if you left a comment on a blog, that blogger would make an effort to comment back on one of your posts. That’s not to say it was perfect, and when I was receiving 50-100 comments on a post returning all comments was virtually impossible, but you could expect around a 50% return rate for your efforts.

What went wrong: although I’ve never stopped reading blogs, I simply don’t prioritise time for commenting any more. That, combined with a general decrease in blog-commenting as a method of communicating, meant that I wasn’t getting the same click-through from potential new eyes and other bloggers. Hence including commenting in Septemblog

I used multiple online forums

I was active in multiple niches all relevant to the topics I would cover on my blog (I have never, and will never stick to just one topic) which meant that no matter what I posted, I could potentially draw eyes from forums on to my posts with a bit of shameless promo. Of course this privilege came at a cost, having built up a reputation on the boards in question: nobody would have clicked my links if I’d joined, posted twice and then spammed the crap out of the forum with links to my website.

online-forums

What went wrong: as the growth of Facebook and its groups increased, a lot of forums stopped being relevant or necessary leading to their closure. Although I use several that remain, I don’t do so as actively as I used to and rarely publish something I feel worth sharing on those I do use.

I provided something of use

Because I had free time, and a genuine interest in furthering my knowledge, I invested time in learning new code and creating useful tools and scripts for other bloggers and webmasters. This meant that not only did people visit my blog to find these tools and scripts, but it earned me a reputation for knowing my stuff which enabled me to release trusted tutorials to teach others how to do the same thing, which in turn also got shared and so on and so forth. I have been approached at web conferences by people who used my stuff to get started 10 years ago, and that is incredibly fulfilling.

What went wrong: the Internet and website-creation as a hobby grew and changed, rendering a lot of my early scripts redundant. My primary blog audience also changed, and those that do still read don’t know or care what my scripts do, let alone want to use and share them. I haven’t bothered to invest time in my scripts to increase their relevancy and so their usefulness — and as such the amount of traffic I get for them — decreases day by day.

I wasn’t afraid to have an opinion

jem-turner-logoI’ve always been a gobby know-it-all cow and once upon a time that reflected quite clearly in my blog. My tagline for years — “Ultimately better than you” — which now is, in part, the strapline for my business was a tongue-in-cheek reference to it. I talked about anything and everything that took my fancy, courting controversy and even attracting the odd hate letter and death threat. People love to disagree, and in particular people love to write reaaally long comments telling you exactly how much they disagree.

What went wrong: after Isabel I didn’t really have time to deal with the throwback from my more controversial pieces, and after Oliver I had to focus on my professional presence online which meant toning down the more er… outrageous opinion pieces. I still have opinions of course, I just keep them to myself unless otherwise asked!

Nowadays 20,000 hits in one day should be easier to achieve: you have a greater number of people online, a much bigger pool of bloggers to collaborate and communciate with, and a huuuuuuge array of social networking sites to create a following and gain authority on. What’s stopping you?

My 5 key parenting principles

Although my parenting ‘method’ is very much make-it-up-as-you-go-along, I have a set of core principles that I believe are important to creating well-rounded little human beings.

Autonomy

I strongly believe in a level of autonomy for my children. Primarily this means bodily autonomy: the freedom to make choices about themselves without judgement or coercion. This means being able to choose if they want to kiss or cuddle a relative (or even me). Choosing whether or not they get their hair cut (and recently, doing it themselves… ouch). Choosing what clothes they wear (within reasonable seasonal / social restrictions, i.e. I encourage them to wear a coat in winter, and to not strip naked in the middle of Tesco). I like to think that if children understand from early on that they have a degree of control over their body, they are less likely to accept unwanted attention as something that is “ok” or “allowed” should that ever occur.

Isabel 'mowing' the lawn
Because who doesn’t like mowing the lawn in their underpants…

Freedom

I feel like I’m raising my children in a culture that is defined and imprisoned by a bogeyman-like threat. An invisible but ever-present scary monster masquerading as the “bad men” who will kidnap our children and do unspeakable things to them. The Daily Mail would have us believe that our streets are lined with rapists and child abusers.

I don’t believe in it, I don’t believe we should be controlled by it, and I certainly don’t think my children’s lives should be unfairly restricted because of it. As such I encourage my children to play unsupervised — I am the parent who goes to the park and sits away from the play area enjoying a coffee. I encourage them to seek adventure — with unrestricted access to our jungle of a garden there’s plenty of mischief to be had. I send Isabel to the local shop for bread or milk — it’s four houses down and never out of sight but to her is a sign that she’s a trusted, responsible, contributing member of the family which boosts her self esteem. Freedom to be, to do, to explore, to play: without interference and direction.

Self-sufficiency

From the moment my kids were able to navigate the world independently, I’ve encouraged them to do so. They are encouraged to walk as soon as they can walk. Fetch their own toys as soon as they can reach. They brush their own teeth, make their own toast, tidy their own room, put their own clothes in the washing machine, scrape their plates (and so on). It doesn’t always go well; teeth sometimes need a second brushing and breadcrumbs in my butter makes me wince, but practice makes perfect. There are days when Izzy ‘forgets’ how to dress herself and wants to be babied and days were Olly is being so fiercly independent that he won’t let me swap his left-foot-right-shoe with the right-foot-left-shoe but 9 times out of 10 they do OK, and I know that I can get on with things I need to do without answering calls of “muuuum” every 30 seconds.

Isabel, 18 months, "mopping" the carpet
Isabel, 18 months, “mopping” the carpet

Respect

Because I know what my kids can do when left to get on with it, I find it much easier to respect them as little independent beings. I respect them enough to assume that they can do ‘stuff’, rather than needing me to do it for them. I respect them enough to talk to them like people, with grown up words and not baby language, and respect their ability to ask when they don’t understand. I try and demonstrate respect to my children so that in turn they will learn to respect the world around them.

Love

Lastly, but most importantly, I surround my children with unconditional love and affection. Because what kind of life is one without love?

I’m taking part in Juneathon

Last week I saw people talking about Juneathon and as a lover of weird and wonderful challenges I figured it’d be something new to take part in and entered as a participant. The general gist is as follows:

  • Run or do some form of exercise every day.
  • Blog or tweet (#juneathon) or post on the Juneathon Facebook Group page about it within 24 hours.

Of course running every day is impossible for me because of childcare constraints, and so I’ll be making liberal use of the “or do some form of exercise” clause. In fact, how better than to start today with: vigorous vacuuming of the entire house.

(Anyone who claims that’s not exercise has obviously never come back after time away to an inch of cat hair coating everything courtesy of your resident moggies.)

I also walked to the school to get Izzy where I’d normally drive. I’m not lazy, it’s just that I pick her up on the way home from work. I picked her up today because I wasn’t at work (courtesy of waking up feeling like death; which incidentally is why I’m not doing anything more strenuous than a bit of housework!)

So anyway, is that a fail on the first day like my original #whole30 or does it totes count?

Milestones

I got a little bit excited yesterday evening after Izzy told me her mouth was hurting as we brushed her teeth (oops, that sounds awful!) I had assumed she was just complaining because she was tired and grumpy, but nope… turns out she has two permanent teeth coming in.

Took me a little by surprise as she hasn’t actually lost her baby teeth yet, but apparently this is a relatively common phenomenon called “shark teeth” (which sounds pretty cool to me). Izzy didn’t think it was cool last night, and got herself all worked up because she was confused about how the teeth were coming up, worried that the tooth fairy wouldn’t know to come, etc. Thanks to a Charlie & Lola episode in which Lola loses a wobbly tooth eating an apple, Izz is now insistent that she has to eat lots of apples for the foreseeable future…

Oliver is also experiencing something new, although more at the “other end” of things as it were. He’s spent the past couple of weeks in pants during the day and we’ve had no more than a couple of accidents tops. He’s very pleased with himself and keeps telling me what a “super job” he’s doing at potty training. This is the second time my wait-til-they’re-ready approach has paid off and enabled a smooth transition straight into pants. Obviously that makes me an expert on potty training now – I should write a book ;)

My babies, they’re growing up! *wipes away a tear*

Fun Days and Holidays

This post was originally written a week ago, so the first paragraph probably doesn’t make much sense now…

Having told you all back in March that I’m blogging wrong, I then went on to not blog at all, which is probably as wrong as you can get if your aim is to actually blog. Unfortunately this was in the most part due to me coming down with some sort of mega cold which left me barely able to function (but without the fever and sleepless nights of flu, thank goodness for small mercies).

On the plus side, it got the lurgies out of the way just in time for the Easter school break, which whilst not normally significant (because we don’t celebrate Easter and I work full time) this year I’d actually remembered to take advantage of the Easter bank holidays and booked 4 days off work (equivalent to a full week with the BH) so that I could take the kids away.

I was meant to blog before we went away to tell you how terrified I was of the whole idea. Long journeys! An entire week with the kids and no break! No adult company apart from strangers! Potentially having to listen to “I miss my Dad” / “I want to go home” whines and not being able to do anything about it! A week without sex Gaz!

Anyway, to ease myself gentle into the whole “being a parent” thing (because I might have them for most of the week but they’re asleep or I’m at work for most of that), I accepted an invite to join various other bloggers and “VIPs” at the Sealife Centre in Birmingham on Saturday 28th March. I was supposed to be telling you all about their new exhibit, the Sea Stars, in time for the Easter holiday. Unfortunately that’s not quite gone to plan.

sealife-centre-birmingham (more…)

The F-word

f-a-tYesterday I was high-fiving the blogosphere as I read @NomadMomDiary‘s post “Not all F words are created equal“. It appealed to me for two reasons:

  1. Because I (controversially) swear in front of my kids
  2. Because the “F” word — that is, FAT — is not allowed in my house

My tweet to this effect raised a mostly positive reaction but Aisling asked a great question:

It was a valid criticism of the idea of banning words and how it might have undesired consequences (which is relevant to why I swear in front of my kids) but, through lack of explanation on my side, missed the point behind my banning of the F-word in my house. It’s not that I’ve sat my kids down and said “we don’t say fat, it’s bad”, it’s just something not discussed:

  • I don’t refer to people as “fat”
  • I don’t refer to myself as fat (within earshot, my blog doesn’t count. No it doesn’t, shut up.)
  • I don’t talk about dieting or losing weight
  • I never force my kids into finishing a meal; I trust them to know when they’re full
  • I talk about food positively, emphasising good nutrition as a baseline but enjoying everything in moderation
  • I talk about exercise from a health and strength point of view

Despite this “avoidance” of the word fat, and general attempts at body positivity and emphasising fitness over perceived fatness, Isabel told me on Tuesday morning that I am fat. I was genuinely shocked to hear the words fall out of her mouth. Not because it bothers me if she thinks I’m fat (I don’t need validation from a little girl) but because I thought I was doing a good job on avoiding what feels like a slippery slope into the world of fad diets, image-obsession and social pressure to look a certain way. I’m not ready to have to discuss these issues with a 5 year old and I don’t think she’s ready either.

I don’t have an answer to dealing with this, although I told Izzy that I didn’t want to hear her call someone fat again because it might hurt their feelings; that there are more important things to people than how much they weigh.

Still, it just goes to show that you can avoid what you like at home, the moment they’re in school they pick up things from their peers you might not like, including the F-word.

You can’t go wrong with chocolate cake

After last week’s crushing failure to get back into the clean eating rhythm, recent anniversary of my oldest brother’s death, a bit of a breakdown on Saturday night where — with a room full of guests — I sobbed all over Gaz and then took myself off to bed, and a terrible morning on Tuesday which ended with both Isabel and I in tears I’ve been a little MEH.

But, on the plus side:

  • I have realised that the mood swings and desire to consume a few hundred thousand calories a day are “new pill” symptoms – I had the same thing when I started the pill for the first time so it makes sense that it’d all come back when restarting after a month break. The eating a million calories thing has already calmed down.
  • My awesome friends Aisling and Katy sorted me out with a Mother’s Day breakfast and a card on Sunday, just in time for my ugly mug to be splashed across the Telegraph moaning about how I don’t get a Mother’s Day cup of tea in bed.
  • I am taking the kids away for a week at the end of the month, so in theory that’s something to look forward to (although I have to admit that the idea of spending 5 days in a tiny caravan with 2 small children on my own is also very terrifying).
  • I’m trying a modified (harder?) version of Stronglifts 5×5 workouts as a bit of a shake up from my usual workout routines, which is exciting (I know how sad that sounds)

I re-read my “manifesto for life” this morning and I’m trying to be conscious of both what I’ve achieved and how much more I have to do (I mean that in a positive way: life has so much to offer) to keep me plodding along.

I never realised how all-consuming depression and anxiety could be until I got sucked into this whirlwind of self-doubt and negativity. The days where I wake up feeling low, it’s like a black cloud surrounds me threatening to swallow me whole. As I drag myself out of bed and make my way through the day I can feel the impact that my low mood has upon others than that just makes it worse: the feelings of guilt for wearing people down, the frustration at not being to “just cheer up” and so on.

Anyway, that sounds glum but the reality is I can see this ‘bad patch’ fading away. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, which gives me something to aim for. In the mean time, I’ll settle for self-medication: with lifting to make me feel strong, running to chase away the brain chatter, and chocolate cake… because you can’t go wrong with chocolate cake.

A day of mini adventures

One of the good things about half term and end of term holidays, which the kids spend with their Dad due to him only working term time, is the fact that I get my babies for the entire weekend instead. No splitting, no half days or couple of hours here and there like before and after school in the week (in other words, normally I get all the work and bugger all time :P)

We made the most of it today by having a series of mini adventures: some intentional, some not. Firstly, we fuelled up early with a good breakfast, and then headed out into Ironbridge on a long walk. Longer perhaps than intended when we got a little bit lost in the woods.

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After that, having trekked back to the car and filled it full of mud we went to Homebase so get some drill bits and some paint, so that I might actually finish decorating my living room and can do it my way now the house belongs to me, woop woop.

After that we came home and the kids assembled the biggest train track EVER whilst I assembled Ikea furniture and put up a picture frame thingy which involved drilling into the wall. Unfortunately, just as I finished drilling into the wall the power went off and I shit myself (metaphorically) thinking I’d drilled through a cable… because you know, getting one of those cable checky gadgets is for wimps.

Having reassured myself and the kids that the failed electrics was not my fault, we had to find a way to cook the very raw chicken that was to be our tea. Electric oven? Yep. Oh dear. Decamp to Gaz’s! (Poor Gaz.)

Invasion of Gaz’s complete we then came back home and two very tired kiddies crashed out in bed. And I’m not far behind them, zzzzz!

What a fucking year.

I was going to write a long boring post today about all the shit that I’ve gone through this year. It’s a lot of shit. In the past few weeks alone I’ve felt the sting of death, twice, and helplessly watched my son crying out in fear and pain as a doctor manipulates his pudgy limbs to check for signs of a broken bone. I’m stressing constantly about my housing situation, which seems to fluctuate between “nearly fixed” and “hopeless stream of paperwork”. I miss my bunnies. I’m trying to give up my self employment to help my mental health but I can’t actually afford to do so and the prospect scares me.

But that would make me cry and I’ve shed so many tears lately I’m not sure I have any left in me to shed.

Instead I’m going to try and tell you all the good things about this year. Like finding the strength to leave a dead relationship, finally. And somehow having the luck and good fortune to step out of that relationship straight into another, quite without intending to, bringing me happiness unlike anything I’ve never known. Allowing me to experience things I never thought I would: trust, respect, autonomy, love without conditions.

I’d like to tell you about the joy of seeing my little girl pick up a book, sound out phonemes until she’s figured out a word, string words together until she has a sentence and ultimately read a book. My little girl enjoying something that has always been incredibly important to me, something that I hope will become just as important to her in years to come.

I want to talk a little about my little boy who turned around recently and counted to 20, just like that, except maybe missing a number in the teens but I’ll forgive him that because last time I checked he’d only learned how to count up to 7.

I need to talk about the immense feeling of pride I felt when I sat and listened to my Granddad talk about the love he felt for his beautiful wife and his children. How privileged I felt to hear his stories, realising how hard he worked to provide for his family. (And not think about the regret I feel for not visiting him more when I had the chance.)

I can’t talk about the positives of this year without a nod to the BeEx-ers who welcomed me into their little ‘family’, allowing me to enjoy their company and share their laughter (and Smirnoff Ice).

I have to mention the amazing people who have supported me in my effort to raise £20,000 without whom I wouldn’t be able to pay the fees on the mortgage, which I’m submitting the (hopefully) final bits of paperwork for today, which is going to secure me that £20k.

Last but definitely not least I have to wax lyrical about the friends who’ve supported me this year. Every hug, virtual or physical; every kind word, phone call, offer of a shoulder; every time someone has reached out to me on twitter or facebook; every single one that’s just said they’re there if I need them: I probably wouldn’t have got through the year in tact without them all. Thank you.