HOW DO YOU SLEEP?

As a writer, I'm something of a professional dreamer, so I was intrigued to read the latest lifestyle advice from movie goddess Gwyneth Paltrow about "clean" sleep being vital for health.

Don't get me wrong, I love being asleep - some of my best ideas appear as dreams and rather like Marnie, the main character in my first novel, Mr Make Believe, I'm prone to daydreaming too. But the fact is, as a mother-of-two, I simply don't get enough shut eye and judging by Gwyneth's standards, the quality of my sleep is far from clean and verging on the dirty side, really.

Maybe Gwyneth gets so exhausted by whizzing up kale smoothies that she really needs to go for a lie down but she almost binges on sleep, apparently, getting a good ten hours a night. I don't begrudge her that.

Good for you Gwynnie!

But I did have a laugh, as sleep is the one thing most parents don't have in abundance. And now it is the mainstay of wellbeing and we simply must get more of it, she advises. Well, great, but who is going to do the washing up and the laundry of an evening? And what about having a bit of sit down in front of the telly after the hell of children's bedtime?

And what about the broken nights with babies and toddlers, and young kids  - and, let's face it, older kids, too. Mine are 12 and nine and if I get them both asleep before 9pm most nights I consider that a total victory. Even then, bad dreams, trips to the loo... all these things get them out of bed and they still have a habit of coming into see me and telling me about it, in the small hours of the morning. I don't mind, I think it is sweet, and my mum radar twitches every time they get up in the night anyway, so when they wake up, I do too. Motherhood has made me a really light sleeper.

The last time I had ten hours flat out, I'm afraid there was a quantity of gin involved, which is definitely not on the kale and chia seed healthy foods list, is it?

I have had some really great arguments about sleep. Early on in my marriage, when the kids were babies, there was a sort of guerrilla warfare going on, with me sneaking in naps whenever he went out of the house and him "going for a quick lie down" on Saturday afternoons while I huffed my way with the babies around the park, muttering under my breath that he really should be here, to share the joy of their childhood, never mind that he was knackered from working all week. We even ended one fight, yelling: "Well, you got seven hours in last night and I only had four!" before we realised how ridiculous we sounded.

The rules of Gwyneth's "clean" sleeping mean no food or snacks after 8pm. Ok, so I know I shouldn't but I might sneak a biscuit or two in front of my favourite TV show before bed, which makes my sleeping a bit grubby, doesn't it? Does gin and tonic count as a snack?

No ipads or smart phones are allowed in the bedroom, which must be a technology-free zone. Oh dear, I use my phone as an alarm clock because the kids nicked the clock and stole the batteries. My sleep is looking quite mucky now.

Pillows  - they must be infused with copper. Well, mine are from John Lewis, probably quite nice, but I can't afford copper-infused ones, sorry, we have only just had Christmas. Sleep rating  - dirty.

Relaxation  - make sure you are completely relaxed, by having a head or foot massage. Nice idea, but the masseur is having a day off, Gwynnie, and my other half is already unconscious.

Sleepometer - filthy.

HOW'S YOUR DIARY LOOKING?

Have you signed up for baby music? Baby French? How about baby yoga, then?

Caffeine-fuelled new mothers bring their babes-in-arms along to little clubs, just for the sake of their sanity (I know I did) and sit with a glazed look in their eyes as their babies drool along to the music. 

Swimming lessons  - oh my!  - the competition to get signed up with the best teacher can sometimes be a military operation. Dads are sent out at dawn, armed with a flask full of hot coffee, to queue up before the gym even opens, in order to get the toddler's name on the list for the Ducklings club.

We are not talking Olympic swimming here, just splashing about with water wings, but if your name isn't down, you're not coming in.

By the time we get to schools, a child's busy diary could make the CEO of a major national corporation blush.

After school activities, weekend sports fixtures and clubs and - let's be honest  - tutors too. Yes, I know people who started tutoring their children aged five, admittedly in the private schools system in London, but that was seen as the norm. Then they wondered why the kids were so tired they were badly behaved at bed time.

Weekends see parents charging off in different directions, with kids going to music lessons, riding lessons, karate club and the rest, with just time to shove a quick sandwich down for lunch.

Our children seem to have so many opportunities now, it is just fantastic. But on the other hand, do they ever get any down time with their parents?

Just hanging about the house together, going for a walk - doing something which doesn't require a termly fee and a large overdraft, perhaps? How about  - gasp  - watching the telly together! 

Board game anyone?

As my kids get older, I worry about them getting to the weekend exhausted from school and then not having enough time to just, well, do nothing. Sometimes making a window in our diary to flop on the sofa is what is needed most, for us and our children.

MY CHRISTMAS READING LIST

Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier

Simply reading her first sentence, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, is like diving into a box of my favourite chocolates. Grabbing a sneaky five minutes on the sofa with this book amid all the festive debris from two kids feels like a small victory.

The Jolly Christmas Postman – Allan Ahlberg and Janet Ahlberg

I don’t care if my boys are getting too old for this now, they will have it foisted upon them every Christmas until they are twenty. It is a tradition to go through the book and open up all the letters which have got mixed up, as the brave postie makes his way through the snow.

You Are All Just Jealous of My Jetpack – Tom Gauld

Cartoons, clever ones, have long been a Christmas tradition for me. I grew up reading the annual book of Giles cartoons from the Daily Mail, which my Grandpa bought for us every year, flicking through and probably not understanding half of it. Tom Gauld is a genius and his cartoons make me laugh so hard, it almost counts as exercise, which is great after too much turkey.

Shocking! The Art and Fashion of Elsa Schiaparelli – Dilys E Blum

I adore this coffee table book, which I got for Christmas a few years ago. I get it out and lust after her witty and fabulous designs. Reading it actually makes me feel feverish, so I have to save it for special occasions.

Celestine, Voices from a French Village – Gillian Tindall

There is something magical about this book and the best bit is, it’s all true. A bundle of letters found in a ruined house in deepest France are the starting point for a historical treasure hunt, in which a family’s story down the generations is brought vividly to life. The characters she unearths bring to mind those of Balzac. Perfect fireside reading for Francophiles.

YOU BELIEVE IN FATHER CHRISTMAS, BUT I DON'T, MUMMY...

I knew it was going to happen one day but that day always seemed so far away, I never gave it much thought.

Then, one frosty morning last week on the school run, my youngest - aged nine - piped up:

"Father Christmas isn't real, is he?"

"Don't be silly," I said. "Of course he is."

"No, he isn't, because (eldest son, just turned 12) told me he wasn't real. It's just you and Daddy buying all the presents and putting them under the tree."

I gasped and the car almost swerved.

Eldest child had already been dropped off at that point, or I think I would have told him off, there and then.

I stewed on it all day. I looked back through photographs of Christmases past, when they were both so little, they could barely sleep with excitement and I was so tired, I just wanted it to be over, to be honest, so I could put my feet up. The memory of one Christmas, when the wrapping paper ran out at midnight and I had half of Argos still to do is still seared into my subconscious. But now, nearly a decade later, I wanted the magic to continue forever, for them to dress up as singing Christmas trees and elves in the school play and really, truly believe that Santa Claus was coming to town, rather than some bloke from Amazon with a delivery van.

On the afternoon school run, the pick ups were reversed and once I got the eldest into the car, I gave him quite a talking to. He looked at me with bemusement.

"You believe in Father Christmas, Mum, that is OK, but I don't. It's like Jesus. I don't believe in God or Jesus either."

"What!" I cried. "This is nothing like religion!"  - yes, I'm quite happy for him to be a non-believer as far as the Holy Trinity is concerned.  "It's Christmas, it's magical! You can't go spoiling it for (the youngest) by telling him Father Christmas isn't real. Because he is. I said so."

Honestly, I'd lost the plot a bit. Since when did it become a crime not to believe in Santa at the age of 12?

"OK," he sighed. "It's just if I say I believe in Father Christmas at school, I will get picked on. So I kind of have to not believe. I can just say Father Christmas is real when I'm at home, if it helps?"

I looked at him in the rear view mirror, as I drove along. He was actually humouring me.

"That's right," I said, I just couldn't stop myself. "Because in our house Father Christmas does exist, or you won't get any presents! Don't you dare spoil it for your little brother!"

He was right. I was being ridiculous. But I couldn't let the dream die, not yet, not this year, maybe not ever! Who am I kidding? Am I expecting them to have to pretend that Father Christmas is real at the age of 14? Or perhaps at 18, as they heading off to the pub on Christmas Eve. Will I be waving their stockings at them at the front door, shouting, "be back before midnight or Father Christmas won't leave you any presents!" like some mad woman?

I don't know, but I fear the answer is: probably.

ARE YOU LISTENING?

It's amazing how having children can induce selective deafness  - in ourselves and our partners, and of course, our children.

When they are little, the slightest "goo" from your baby can induce raptures and if you are stuck at home all day with them, of course you want to share news of the baby's verbal prowess with your other half, who probably wants to just switch off and watch telly when he gets in from work.

So, they pretend to listen to you, occasionally throwing in a "Mmm",  "Did he?" "That's incredible!", with one eye on the screen and the other on their glass of wine.

That is not to be mean to them because you will be sitting there while he drones on about his day - when he gets to talk to adults! - thinking "Jesus, I'm so tired, I just want wine/ sleep/ chocolate/ coffee/ more sleep" but you will say "Amazing!", "You're so clever!" "Fancy that!" and so on.

This cycle of not really listening also extends to asking for things to be done around the house - "Don't you remember I said to put the bins out?"/ "Could you pick up some milk?"

And if you're ever thinking of going out of the house and leaving him with the kids for more than five minutes do NOT expect him to have heard anything you said before you left.

COMPLICATED STUFF LIKE WHAT THE BABY IS GOING TO EAT/ WEAR/ PLAY WITH -  FORGET IT.

Once I went out for the afternoon and left my husband with our six-month-old. When I returned, the baby was fast asleep on the floor in the living room, while the husband was busy playing with the Playstation. This counted as "childcare" in his head, never mind that I had left a heap of educational toys and strict instructions on nap times. He hadn't heard that, apparently.

I wonder whether the smartphone/iPad obsession has made all the not listening worse?

AS A PARENT, IF YOU HAVE ONE EYE ON YOUR SCREEN, CAN YOU REALLY BE LISTENING TO YOUR CHILD?

I am not judging here, I am guilty of this more than most. It also allows me to juggle being a mother and working from home, for a start.

We also don't often listen to ourselves. I say things I never intended to when I first had children. My first baby wasn't a "no, no, no!" toddler because I consciously made an effort not to say "no" all the time and to find other ways of persuading him to do things. By the second one, I was so knackered I couldn't have cared who said yes, no or whatever, as long as I got some sleep.

The most shocking thing is when  your kids reflect back to you what you say to them, or they say it too each other. On a recent car journey, my two boys were having an argument. "Shut up!" said the eldest to the youngest. "Just SHUT UP!".

"We don't say that!" I said.

"BUT, YOU TOLD ME TO SHUT UP THE OTHER DAY!" SAID THE ELDEST, "WHICH MAKES YOU A BIT OF A HYPOCRITE."

Oh dear. And I thought he hadn't been listening...

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THE GOOD (ENOUGH) PARENT

From the moment they are born, you worry about your babies. Back in the old days, your mum, your gran, your aunties would offer you sensible advice and help you through those difficult early months.

Maybe you are lucky enough to have family on your doorstep but what's the betting, that for the majority of us, that is no longer the case?

You are left to struggle alone or with your partner ( increasingly tired from work) and you turn to magazines, websites and your friends for help and advice. For me, there was a little internal voice, which grew louder when I was most tired.

It was the voice which told me that I wasn't good enough, I was doing it "wrong".

Unfortunately, there were other voices out there in the real world- on the telly, in magazines and in mother and baby groups - which would also reinforce that sense of doubt; the preaching stuff about breast is best, the endless advice on healthy eating, on routines. I felt guilty that I "only" breastfed my babies for three months before I switched to bottles. I found it tiring and to be brutally honest, my body was not my own and I wanted it back. Is that wrong? There were some breast feeding fanatics out there who made me feel I had failed and my children's immune systems would never recover.

I wept at midnight as a pureed yet another batch of home-cooked veg and poured it into little ice cubes so that I wouldn't let my baby down by giving him jars of babyfood. Why did I do that? Baby jars are perfectly healthy and balanced and fine. Sometimes sleep is better than whizzing food up in a blender in the small hours, isn't it?

But I was trying to be the best parent.

Luckily I was able to have a "normal" birth with my first rather than a C-section or I would really have had to hang my head in shame, wouldn't I? Why do mothers make such a big deal of that? Yes, you may have managed to squeeze your baby out - and torn yourself to shreds in the process- but it doesn't make you any better than someone who has chosen a C-section or had one as an emergency to save their baby from brain damage or death. So, at least I was not like my friend who felt a failure over her first "birth experience" and desperately wanted a vaginal delivery for the second. When she didn't get one, she pretended right up to the last minute that she was "getting ready for the big push", sending texts out to all and sundry. The baby was delivered safely by C-section. Big deal. She still felt guilty though.

As our children grow up we want to be the best parent for them, to always be there, to keep them occupied, to help them learn. In fact, part of the learning process is to allow them to be alone, to be bored, to play by themselves. It is OK for them to see that we have needs too and jobs and friends. The world out there is a big place and in the real world they are not the centre of attention all the time.

Sometimes when that internal critic rears its head and tells me I'm a rubbish mother, I take a deep breath and say:

"I'm not a good parent but I am trying to be good enough."

Good enough means you will give them tinned spaghetti on toast rather than organic home-cooked, you will at least try to take them to the park with a hangover, you will lose your temper but then say sorry.

You will love them just as much as you can and then some more and they will still be ungrateful for it when they are teenagers. That is when you know you have done it right. That is good enough for me.

MAD FRANK AND SONS FILM

I'm really excited that my biography of the Fraser crime family, Mad Frank and Sons, has been optioned for a film. I hope to have more news on this soon but for now, here is the official press release...

MAD FRANK AND SONS by David Fraser, Patrick Fraser and Beezy Marsh optioned for film by Bill Kenwright Ltd.

Bill Kenwright Ltd has optioned film rights to MAD FRANK AND SONS, the exclusive story of Mad Frankie Fraser’s life becoming one of the most feared and respected West End crime lords and head of a legendary gangland family. Fraser’s gripping life story as told to writer Beezy Marsh, featuring interviews with Frank before his death and with Frank’s bank robber sons, was published in June 2016 by Macmillan. Rights for a feature film were acquired by Bill Kenwright Ltd from Jonathan Sissons at Peters Fraser and Dunlop.

Bill Kenwright is known for his theatre productions but has many film credits to his name: The Day After the Fair, Stepping Out, Don't Go Breaking My Heart and most recently Cheri, starring Michelle Pfeiffer, and Rufus Norris' Broken, starring Tim Roth and Cillian Murphy, which won Best Film at the British Independent Film Awards and opened the 2012 Cannes Film Festival Critics' week. Craig Tuohy of Bill Kenwright Ltd was also behind recent gangland film, Rise of the Krays.

Author Beezy Marsh, said: “Frank Fraser's story continues to fascinate; from his humble beginnings in the slums of Waterloo and his rise through the seedy gangland of Soho, to his notorious 42 years in prison. It is really exciting that Bill Kenwright Ltd has seen the potential for Mad Frank and Sons to make a brilliant film.”

David Fraser said: “I’m looking forward to seeing my and my family’s story on the screen. The truth can be a beautiful thing but it can also be hurtful, and that is very much the story of our lives.”

Craig Tuohy of Bill Kenwright Ltd, said: “Frankie Fraser’s story has all the elements of classic cinema. He was anti-authority through and through yet he lived and died by a code of ethics that made some people see him as a folk hero and others as a danger to society. Bill Kenwright films looks forward to bringing this amazing story to the big screen in 2017.” 

THE CHRISTMAS PRESENT HORROR

Well, it's coming up to Christmas and I expect you are already thinking about what presents to buy for the little ones.

I'd just like to share, from bitter experience, my own personal Holiday horrors hotlist.

Yes, I proudly present my top ten gifts guaranteed to make you groan.

The list isn't extensive  - I'm sure you have a few nightmare stories of your own to add.  Bah humbug.

1. Moonsand. Kids love it, parents don't. Moonsand will clog up your hoover, get into the cracks in your floorboards and just generally go everywhere. My kids had a "building" set which had enough sand to build precisely six bricks. That isn't even a wall. The rest of it was on the floor, where it still remains, probably, wedged into the cracks in the floorboards.

2. Electric guitars or loud bleepy toys of any description. These are more expensive than some toys but don't be fooled by the price tag. The people who buy you these gifts do not like you. They want you to be tortured at 6am by repetitive screeching sounds more aggravating than those emitted by your offspring. Take the batteries out. Oh dear, it's broken...

3. Hama beads. Annoying bits of plastic which are used to make pointless mats  - which you must then iron, for God's sake, to stop them falling apart and going everywhere. Kids love them, for about five seconds. More fun is to be had playing with the cardboard box they come in.

4. Furby. Imagine that nasty Chucky doll from the horror movie  - well, meet Furby! This furry monstrosity will wake up early on Christmas Day with your little darlings but he won't go to bed, ever. Don't keep him in their room, for he will shriek and squeak at their slightest movement.

I kept mine in the dining room until the little swine caught me raiding the fridge one night and nearly woke the neighbourhood.

If - like my kids - yours lose interest and forget to "feed" Furby, he will turn mean, making angry gurgling noises. And there is no off switch. Short of pulling his insides out with a flathead screwdriver, I waited until Easter and took him to the charity shop. The woman serving me nearly wept with gratitude. I walked off laughing.

5. Action men type dolls. Their shoes don't fit, you can't get them to "grip" the gun and don't even try to get them into their scuba outfit. Your little one will be sorely disappointed and you will have a nervous breakdown.

6. Playmobil castle set. It's a castle! It is massive! You have to build it on Christmas Day (with a hangover, be honest) and there are LOADS of fiddly bits. The money gets lost, the swords drop down the back of the sofa. I survived, just, but would rather kill the Xmas turkey with my bare hands than face this again.

7. Marble run. Yayy! Marbles! Let's hope the kids don't swallow one or stick one up their nose. But that is just a silly worry, because they are big enough to play with... No! Stop! Spit that out! Anyway, back to building the run. Bloody nightmare. Just don't go there.

8 Joke sets. Did you ever find a plastic turd funny? No? Me neither and that was in 1980. Well, guess what? The old jokes are still the best...

9. Dressing up. Good old fashioned dressing up, they love it so. Yes, they love it so much they want to wear it all day, every day, never take it off, never put it in the wash and never go outside with their coat on, even in mid-winter. Great. Two weeks off school with the flu.

10. Nerf guns. Oh, Nerf guns are so much fun for boys and girls. I have a complete arsenal in my house, rocket launcher, machine gun, pistols, bazookas...

The bullets hurt, especially when the kids shoot each other in the face (they will, trust me) and the bullets get EVERYWHERE.

The other rule of Nerf is that children must shoot with gay abandon, parents must pick up the little fiddly bullets. For the rest of their lives.

LET THEM EAT... CAKE

My wildest fantasies are about perfect mealtimes, with rosy cheeked children wolfing down a healthy, home-made fare, while displaying reasonable table manners and above average conversational skills.

The reality is rather different: two boys who are like chalk and cheese, two different suppers, peas being flicked at each other, food smothered in ketchup and "What's for pudding?" trilled before they are even half way through. Tough mummies out there would scoff, doubtless, and make them sit at the table for days until they have cleared their plates. I live in the real world and need to get them in to bed so that I don't have to drag them out of it exhausted the following morning. I also need time to write, wash up, do the laundry and maybe, just maybe,

sit down for five minutes at the end of the day with the person I married, before I forget his name.

Food is such an emotive issue. We need it to survive, it binds families together. Some people even enjoy cooking. They are usually blokes who haven't had the soul destroying experience of cooking for ungrateful children for the last ten years. Yes, my cakes are legendary for all the wrong reasons. I once overheard my youngest telling Daddy that "he only ate it, because he felt sorry for Mummy." Oh dear.

I did get my own back once. I was asked by a well-known national newspaper to eat like Gwyneth Paltrow for a week and inflict it on my kids too. Sadly, the article ended up on the spike but I still have the memories. Could I convert my boys from Krispy Kreme to kale? The answer was no and the overall experience was, as Gywneth once proclaimed after running out of herbs de Provence salt, a nightmare!

The overall cost was £150 on top of my weekly shopping bill for expensive "healthy" ingredients and I spent a lot of time whizzing up bags of kale to make super green juice. As I downed my fifth smoothie of the week, I began to realise why Chris Martin had to consciously uncouple from such a dull diet.

My eldest boy, then eight, wailed: 

"Please Mummy, don't make me eat like a celebrity!"

...and promised to tidy his room.  There were more tears than Gwyneth's Oscar acceptance speech as I tried to get them to eat kale, black bean and sweet potato skillet, whatever the hell that was. Later that evening, exhausted, I tried one of her lentil meatballs. I wanted to say to my husband that it was a bit bland but was prevented from doing so by the meatball sticking to the roof of my mouth.  He made his excuses and left for the pub. Later that evening, he smelled suspiciously like a steak and ale pie.

So, post Gwyneth, we settled on home made pancakes for breakfast most days, which I do feel is over-achieving slightly. It involves me wearing an apron, which counts as "proper" cooking and I can smirk smugly when I compare with other mothers, who dole out the cereal of a morning.

Just don't mention the kale smoothies... Ever.

CREATIVITY - IT'S CHILD'S PLAY

One of the greatest refrains as a parent must be:

"Tidy your room!"

With two boys  - one of them a Lego fanatic  - I have said this more than most, along with, "I'm not clearing up after you for the rest of your life!".

My eldest son, who is dyslexic, has a particular talent for mess. For him, playing  has always involved tipping everything out on the floor and then sifting through it to get to what he wants.

The photo above is his room on a typical day.

I can almost hear the shrieks of horror from those tidy-moms out there, who insist that everything has a place and all toys must be put away after they have been played with.

Well, I was once like you but all it brought me was a headache and tears of frustration as I would scoop up piles and piles of Lego while he would start tidying and then become distracted by a particular bit he had been looking for all along and go off piste from our "tidy up time", to play with it.

One day, he turned to me and said: "Mum, where you see mess, I see creativity. That heap over there is all the stuff I'm going to use to build the castle. The other bits on that side of the room are for the village and this pile is the soldiers."

To my untrained eye, it just looked like a whole load of Lego strewn all over the carpet, but what he said stopped me in my tracks.

He needed to make this mess to be able to play in the way he wanted.

Who was I to stop him? If I made him put it away, I would ruin his work in progress.

I thought about the state of my desk when I'm writing  - piles of paper with ideas scribbled everywhere, printed notes for research, reference books, tea cups, notebooks... you get the picture. To a casual observer, it looks like a state of chaos but to me, it is perfectly logical and ordered. This is just how I work  - in a fairly messy way.

Some writers might like a neat desk with everything in order. I tend to just get stuck in and throw things on the floor when I'm done.

Only when I have completed the manuscript do I clear everything up, dust it down, chuck out what is not needed and file things away.

Trying to impose order on my son's creativity was a big mistake and one it took me a while to get to grips with.

We have now reached a happy medium. I allow him to keep his room a complete tip usually for around a week to ten days, while he works on whatever he wants. Then, with his agreement, he has to clear it up (of course, I help) and I can then get in with the hoover before he starts all over again.

The only problem is if I forget and go in there with bare feet. The agony of stepping on Lego bricks is one of the more painful parts of the journey of parenthood. I still bear the scars from that.

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FROM THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN... UNDERSTANDING DYSLEXIA

It started when my first baby was just 16 weeks old and he rolled over.

Another mother, who I had met at the antenatal clinic, immediately tried to push her child over, to make him do the same thing. She was an intelligent woman who, in the world of work, had run a team of people, yet she was angst-ridden that her baby wasn’t doing what mine did “early enough”.

Then came weaning and don’t get me started on walking and talking. I admit, I felt a sense of pride as my child reached all those milestones on time, in fact, probably earlier than most. The health visitor patted him on the head and said he was a lovely “normal”, healthy baby. I lapped it up, secretly pleased that he had never crawled and just stood up and walked, while all the other babies were still scrabbling all on fours. 

The start of nursery brought the pressure to read, to start making “meaningful marks”. My child preferred charging around in a Spiderman suit. In fact,

he thought he WAS Spiderman for a while and I was happy to go along with it,

while others fretted about developmental milestones. 

The first years of school brought reading scheme competitiveness. I know mothers who would sneak a look in their friend’s children’s book bags, to see what level of Biff and Chip they were on, to compare with their own offspring. Maybe they were having a bout of Competitive Mother Syndrome, or maybe they were just anxious, in the light of our target-led society, to make sure that their kid was developing “normally”. 

By the time my boy was eight, other parents bragged about their children devouring The Hobbit at bedtime and their kids’ written work was proudly displayed on the classroom wall, but not my son’s. I started to suffer the anxiety felt by that new mother all those years previously, trying to force her baby to roll over on my living room carpet.  

My child was different.

Trying to read with him ended up in an argument. He would hurl Biff and Chip on the floor and run off to play Lego. I would sob quietly after yet another battle to get him to do his homework. 

He fell behind in class and started to chew his clothes. He gnawed his bunk bed. The battles over homework grew worse. As parents, we agonised about what was wrong and blamed each other. He refused to even pick up a pencil and write.

The school recommended testing for dyslexia and when the results came back, they revealed that our lovely, intelligent boy was so severely dyslexic that he would be best suited to a non-mainstream school for a few years. I heard the word “special” and reacted angrily. How dare they suggest that my child was not normal! He was by now so depressed and his self-esteem so low that he had become the victim of a bright little boy who was also a nasty bully. I removed my boy from school and he played Lego at home for six weeks – something I could never have contemplated when I was out buying babygros and planning his spectacular educational future.

We then made a giant leap into a school which is not “special” but “specialist”, in that it is just for children like him, with dyslexia.

I no longer want my child to be “normal” - in fact, I rejoice in the fact that he is different.

I have experienced motherhood from the outside looking in, the parent to the child who cannot compete with the rest and at times it is a painful place to be; painful because I was unable to protect my son from his feelings about being different from the rest, in a system which only promoted academic success. Before we left his first school, he had started to express shame and disgust with his handwriting and reading, his inability to be like the other children, which was made worse by the school’s insistence on “peer-marking”, so other children could laugh at his efforts to spell. I have to say I think the mainstream school system – both state and private - has a long way to go to protect the self-esteem of children like my son. 

As a society, I think we need to think long and hard about promoting all this milestone mania and the detrimental effect it is having on families as a whole, and children in particular. Yes, it can help get things picked up early so that action can be taken but too often, in the school setting, it is used to make kids feel bad about themselves. Are yours “gifted and talented?”  

No? Oh dear.

It can take a very thick skin to deal with that as adults, so just imagine how it feels for the child.

 

This post was originally featured over on The Motherload - thanks team.  

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THE HOUSEHOLD OLYMPICS

Now all the fuss about the GB gold medals in Rio has died down a bit, it’s time to contemplate the frankly gruelling and thankless training regimes of mothers everywhere, who take part daily in the Household Olympics.

There are a few new events vying for entry to the 2020 Olympiad - notably buggy fit in the park while texting and balancing a latte in the same hand/ retrieving the orange flavour Innocent smoothies from the supermarket before any other mother can to get them (time trial) and

ordering from ASOS on the iPad while pretending to read Biff and Chip with your child for their homework (mindfulness training).

For now, I will stick with tried and tested favourites, which form the backbone of any household training routine.

1.    WEIGHTLIFTING  - Yes, emptying the bin. Your husband or partner will usually helpfully cram everything in, including the kitchen sink, before even thinking of changing the black bag, to make it nice and heavy for you. So it’s lid off, tie the tops, heave-ho in one swift movement, remembering to bend your knees to avoid injury. Extra training points for double bagging with minimal spillage and swearing when the overstuffed bag breaks.
2.    100M SPRINT – Baby having a nap? Can you make it to the front door before the Amazon man dings on the bell? If so, it is likely that your husband/ mother-in-law/ best mate will ring just as the baby has finally gone down, just to “see how you are doing.” Red-faced by now but training hard.
3.    TRAMPOLINING  - For safety reasons, make sure you remove small children from the trampoline first, before attempting any gymnastics. I know of one children’s party which ended rather suddenly after an exuberant father boinged on and crushed a little one. It wasn’t even his. But I digress. Preparation is key for this exercise. Go to the loo first. I don’t care how many Pilates classes you have done since you gave birth, there is only going to be one winner in this event and it is not going to be your pelvic floor.
4.    LONG DISTANCE - In most households with babies, this is known as the afternoon. Up since 5am, eyes feel like someone is sticking pins in them and hands shaking from coffee overload. Television helps but

when Mr Tumble starts to sound like he is making sense, you are in danger of imminent collapse, Brownlee style.

Peppa Pig on the iPad can help as a distraction at this stage – and watching it in a foreign language counts as educational viewing for your little one. If you can’t rest at all you need to carbo-load.

Sod the diet, eat cake.

5.    MARATHON - Sock pairing. I have single socks in my clean laundry which have been there since the late 1980s. Chuck kids socks of varying sizes into the mix, plus other kids’ socks (from playdates) and it is an endurance event. No chance of ever reaching the finishing line on this one. 
6.    TRIATHALON  -  It’s the final event of the day. The big one, the bedtime routine: bath, pyjamas, story. If child is still at the nappies and Babygro stage, this becomes a PENTHALON. Wash hair, feign interest as you play with flotilla of plastic toys and maybe sing a nursery rhyme while fighting tiredness, which by now makes you want to weep. Avoidance tactics such as refusal to go to bed, repeated getting out of bed, fighting with sibling, playing with toys are the final hurdles. (Organisers note: any evidence of doping with Piriton will result in an immediate exclusion from the Household Olympics but self-medication with alcohol is acceptable and quite helpful at this stage in your training)

Well, that’s it for another day. I’m sure you’ll be back in the morning to do it all over again. Just don’t expect anyone to give you a medal.

AS THEY SEE US

This picture drawn by my friend’s seven-year-old at school the other day made me cry with laughter; a perfect smiley Mummy brandishing a large glass of red, proclaiming: “Let’s get drunk!”

I’m not sure what the teacher thought - hopefully she didn’t call social services. But it got me thinking about how, despite our best efforts to be the “perfect” parent, our kids will see the bigger picture. And is there anything wrong with that? In these politically correct times, we might long to be “normal” but a wise psychotherapist once summed up that pipe-dream:

“Normal is a washing cycle.”

As a laundry fanatic, I have to agree.

We are bombarded with images of families having a perfect walk, a perfect holiday and generally, a perfect life, eating five a day, not overindulging ever and probably dying of boredom or not speaking to each other when they get home.

When my kids were very little, I sat one Sunday morning in a park by the River Thames, fighting that gritty-eyed tiredness monster and watching enviously as a dad cycled in, took his baby son out of the little seat on the back of his bike, bought a coffee and read the papers while bouncing his beautiful offspring on his knee.

Oh God. He was a perfect father.

He exercised, he looked after his child. He was in a park at the weekend – and he wasn’t moaning about it or too tired from the week’s work to even get out of bed.

Then, just as I was practically drooling over him, his wife hove in to view, red-faced, flustered, dragging their three-year-old and her trike. I couldn’t hear too much of what she was saying over the child’s screams but it went a bit like this: “Where the HELL have you been? Why did you ride off like that when you could see Felicity couldn’t manage her trike and I was struggling to push it! You just went off and left us.”

My eyes narrowed to little slits of hatred. He shifted uncomfortably.

The selfish bastard! Illusion shattered.

I gave his wife a look of extreme sympathy.

Sharing so much on social media probably only makes the situation more acute. Are we good looking enough, funny enough? Sometimes our children have the answer - we are perfect enough for them, as the drawing of my mate shows. They also don’t have a filter, which can hurt sometimes: “Mummy, in Victorian times, when you were young…”

More recently, in my house...

Child: “Is it normal for women to have a moustache?”

Me: “No, not really…”

Child: “Well, you have got one.”

Let’s just hope he doesn’t draw a picture of me for the teacher.

PRESSING MATTERS

I have a confession to make: I am rubbish at ironing. And folding too.

I find the secret life of a household’s laundry so fascinating. It reminds me of the legs of a swan frantically paddling below the surface, while the body glides serenely across the water. Women, in general, just don’t talk about how they deal with it.

Imagine the conversation: “Hiya, Sal, how’s things with you and Seb?”

“I’m OK, really, but I have got a massive whites wash to get through and I’m a bit worried about some of those rayon mixes. Do you think Seb might be having an affair at work?”

I judge myself to be something of a laundry obsessive but a total slut when it comes to the linen cupboard.

My mother tried her best to teach me to fold and press. She did it all herself, despite working full time as a teacher, so there was an unspoken expectation that I would do likewise.

Now, I superseded her in my handwashing abilities– I was doing the jumpers by hand from the age of 14– but I have never, ever been able to fold a piece of paper in half and get it straight, let alone a sheet or a towel. And that is before we get on to those fitted sheets. Jesus. Have you tried to fold one of those properly? I watched a YouTube video on how to do that once, and lost the will to live half way through.

I would like to share with you the secrets of my airing cupboard to prove my point.

In my dream life, I have a perfectly ordered, White Company cupboard full of crisp sheets and blanched towels, folded and stacked to perfection.

Now for the reality. On a good day there are some towels, misfolded, balanced precariously and a bundle of those blasted fitted sheets chucked in a corner and a few duvet covers, screwed up awaiting the iron.  On a really bad day it is a veritable battle scene; mounds of crumpled duvet covers are engaged in a full-on war with crushed sheets. The whole creased heap threatens to burst through the airing cupboard door, maraud down the stairs and take over the house.

At various points in my life, I have got somewhere near my dream of the perfect linen cupboard but that is only because I cheated and got professional help in the form of a cleaner who liked ironing. In fact, having just moved house last month, the first thing I did was hunt down a woman who could iron and throw myself on her mercy.

“I’m just so busy”

I said, blushing as I handed over two Ikea bags of higgledy-piggledy bedclothes to this complete stranger. “It’s because I am a writer.” Well, it is true, I am busy and a writer but I am also crap at ironing and I will never get over the shame of it.

That said, the laundry is my most constant companion throughout my writing day.

In fact, when I wrote Mad Frank and Sons – the biography of the Fraser crime family from London – I had recently moved into a small, rented house in a little Oxfordshire village, to be near the school we had chosen for our eldest son, who is severely dyslexic. So, I sat in the tiny box room at my desk and on rainy days, I would turn around and adjust the socks, school uniforms and underwear drying on the heated airer next to me. Writing breaks involved going downstairs to empty yet another load of washing. I would chuckle inwardly at other people’s notions about the glamour of having it all, as I paired socks and proof read.

I took comfort from the knowledge that Iris Murdoch had once lived in the very same village, a few hundred yards away up the road, in a state of complete disarray. She barely bothered with the washing and used to bathe in the pond in the garden and dry her clothes on the bushes. Every surface in her kitchen was covered with filth. Maybe this approach to the laundry and household upkeep is something I should seek to cultivate in order to improve my prose? If it was good enough for Iris…

In my old house in London– where space was at a premium– the clean, unironed, unsorted laundry lay in a basket at the foot of the bed, like some needy baby. I don’t know why I put it there because it was the last thing I saw at night and the first thing I looked at in the morning. It became a constant reminder of my failings as a housewife. Perhaps there was nowhere else for it to go (the rest of the house was covered in Lego, but that is another story).

Having just moved into a bigger, rented property in another village, I can now hide the laundry and the airer in the spare room. It is still doing a great job on rainy days but I can’t break off from writing, turn around and adjust the socks or check if the pants are dry yet and I am missing it a bit.

Some people need solitude and neatness to write. I guess I just need a pile of washing in the background to spur me on.

IT WILL ALL COME OUT IN THE WASH

Reader, I met him.  We went on hot dates, he moved in, we cooked dinner, sipped wine, took baths together… and then reality intruded.

Who was going to do the laundry?

I was a go-getting journalist, he was a busy lawyer and this was the 21st century, so there was no assumption of gender roles on wash day.

Well, I think he had it planned from the start. It was a defining moment in our relationship when he offered to do some washing. I thought: “Ooh, New Man, sexy.” I should have said:  “For God’s sake, don’t touch my LBD.”

It was a go-anywhere dress, stylish, timeless, black and clingy, but in a nice way; short but not too short.

So, one lazy Saturday BK (Before Kids) I went out shopping with some girlfriends– proving I was still “independent”  – and he chucked my best dress on a hot wash. Yes. He murdered it. He might as well have taken scissors to it and cut it to shreds. That would have been easier to bear than the teensy Exhibit A he shamefacedly laid out on the table before me on my return. It had shrunk to Barbie-sized proportions.

I may have cried. I certainly remember choking back tears. I had saved up to buy that dress– well almost, I’d actually stuck it on my credit card, but that is not the point. Our relationship was in the early stages and but I knew he was THE ONE. So I couldn’t yell or scream at him. Instead, I bit my tongue and muttered the immortal line,

“Please don’t ever do my laundry again”, as he looked at the floor and shuffled his feet in shame.

Now, 15 years and two kids later, I realise it was a clever move on his part. He has been true to his word. Did he plan it all along? Was the LBD selected for sacrifice to lay down the boundaries of our relationship on his terms in the one area which can make or break a union? And before you scoff, have you ever been in my house on a Monday morning when the school uniforms are not ready and he hasn’t got a clean, let alone ironed, shirt?

He NEVER touches the laundry, for fear of incurring my wrath. But with two growing boys, one bloke and me ( 30 degrees only, like colours only, short spin cycle and absolutely no tumble drying), it means life has become very complicated.

I live by the mantra that you can drink too much, but you can never love too much and the laundry is never done.

Some days, when the pile of washing threatens to overwhelm me– and I haven’t even begun to tell you about the ironing yet– I fantasise about my epitaph and the books that will be written about my heroic efforts with Fairy non-bio, Vanish and that funny liquid for woollens which always seems to run out when I need to wash my cashmere jumpers.

Yes, I shall be remembered as The Constant Launderer.

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT TAT

Sometimes when people ask me what I do, I say that I’m a Toy Management Executive and I’m only half joking.

Just for a laugh, I will occasionally give myself brackets – you know, Toy Management Executive (Lego), or lately (Pokemon cards and Warhammer figures). The laugh is hollow, by the way, because I am crying inside. The hours I have spent sifting through a rising tide of plastic is nobody’s business. Sometimes, as I struggle through yet another mountain of debris left by gleeful kids,

I think of the things I could have achieved had I not been knee-deep in Made in China.

And then I look at my sons and give myself a slap and remind myself that this is just part of being a mum and I shouldn’t complain.

Perhaps it is a sign that my pampered pair are just too spoilt. No special occasion is complete without a mound of gifts. One Christmas, we had to pause present opening to have lunch. When we finally finished and the house was filled with ripped wrapping paper and new delights from Toys R Us, Grandad popped out to the car and returned, triumphantly, bearing yet more presents while we forced a rictus grin. He was just showing how much he cared, of course, but all I could think of was how on earth I was going to cram that lot into one of those Ikea storage thingys, which was already full to overflowing. The same grandparents, who I love dearly, are pacifists, who raised my husband without ever giving him a toy gun to play with. They have made up for it by arming my two little boys to the teeth with everything from plastic swords and axes to an archery set, rifles and even a rocket launcher.

“Part of the process of parenting is the annual clear out of toys which have served their purpose.”

Some are broken, others are simply outgrown. Some mothers are really efficient at this and scarily so. A friend cleared out all her child’s plastic monstrosities once he turned three– which I felt was just too early. He was then expected to learn to do The Times crossword and discuss politics around the dinner table and become a mini grown-up. If anything, I have erred on the side of hanging on to things for much too long, as evidenced by the flotilla of plastic ducks, squidgy monsters and squirty gizmos hanging somewhat mouldily in those nets with suction pads, over the bathtub. I finally got shot of them very recently, probably ten years too late.

There was a time when I had a recurring dream about being buried under a pile of Lego, struggling to breathe or for anyone to hear my screams but on the whole, I have made my peace with that particular toy because it is just so brilliant. As the mother of a dyslexic child, for whom reading has always been a dreadful struggle, Lego has proved a godsend, an outlet for his creativity which is unmatched by any other toy. Although, the pain it can inflict on the unsuspecting bare foot is legendary, so whenever entering his bedroom, I put on shoes and proceed with caution.

Me, depicted by my children, as a Lego writer at my typewriter. Uncanny.

Me, depicted by my children, as a Lego writer at my typewriter. Uncanny.

The toys I hate most are those really cumbersome lumps of plastic – toy firestations, aeroplanes with loading bays and spaceships. A particular Star Wars spaceship is much loved but rarely complete because bits have dropped off it over the years and I have no idea where they are.  For all I know, they have made their way to another part of the galaxy but the most likely explanation is that they are hiding in a drawer with the itsy-bitsy money from the Playmobil set.

But I digress. I was meant to be talking about clearance. You see, I just can’t get around to it. Well, I did finally get on with it and get rid of not one but TWO car bootloads to the charity shop. I did this by stealth, when the children were out at a Lego robot building course. I feared there would be tears otherwise, even though they haven’t played with the Ninja Turtles pizza flinging game or the rubbish collection truck or the assortment of other plastic cars for years. The last time I tried it, they were in the house and I was caught red handed. It was Buzz Lightyear who gave the game away. I had a black bin liner full of plastic horrors and the boys were safely tucked up in front of the telly. As I sneaked down the stairs, Buzz sprang to life and his booming voice echoed around the hall:  “I am BUZZ LIGHTYEAR! I have come to save the universe!” The mission was aborted as two little heads peered around the living room door to see what I was up to:

“Mummy, why have you got Buzz Lightyear in that rubbish bag?”

This time, there was nobody to hear the last desperate whirrs and squeaks of Buzz and the plastic fantastic crew as I carted them off to the charity shop. It was good by to all that tat and I heaved a sigh of relief as I could finally close the lid on the toybox.

The best bit was that the boys didn’t even notice when they got home that afternoon. That was because they were too busy fighting over the ipad…