Fly, Bella, fly…Oh, goddang, I swallowed a fly

This weekend held three firsts for me.  One was my first at-speed insect-swallowing incident while out bike riding.








Ew.  A protein shake would have sufficed.  Nearly had a sting in the ear too.  Perhaps these mishaps go along with my second first: cycling on a road bike. A bright yellow one at that.  Check out my gratefully borrowed steed:

Road bike







I announced the intention to do a triathlon on my blog last summer.  I haven’t talked about it much on here since – other people’s exercise is pretty dull, really – but I can’t help myself today, because of my third first: feeling officially excited about doing it.

I’ve spent the winter steeling myself for road rides on my sluggish mountain bike, and doggedly trudging to the local pool twice a week, alternating struggling for breath with struggling against my inner giver-upper: “Why the hell did I take this on, why can’t I just stop, I’m never going to be able to do this, why am I so crap.”










But this weekend I told the gremlin where to go.  Flying along like a yellow she-devil knocked down the last-but-one hurdle to feeling like the event is do-able.  Cycling on roads CAN be fun and I CAN go fast. I nearly laughed aloud with glee at the difference this skinny whippet of a bike made.  It was like swapping a 2CV pulling a tractor for a Ferrari.  Well, maybe that’s stretching it, but you get my drift.

But what was the final hurdle you might wonder.  A very female one, I’m embarrassed to admit: what to wear.

I’ve been having mild what-to-wear panic attacks as I’ve started to think through the practicalities of the event.  Wear a sports bra under my swim suit and then add cycling shorts over the top?  Could that look any less attractive?  Short and crop top combo?  Not for this Mummy-tummy.

triathlon suitI solved the problem this weekend.  I succumbed to my first tri-specific kit purchase, a tri-suit.  This one here, in fact, at a vastly reduced rate I couldn’t possibly turn down.  Yes, it means I’ll be in all-in-one lycra (time to ease up on the cakes and pies), but at least I don’t have to worry about silly combinations or changing clothes.


The trouble is, each of these advances limit my ability to excuse a poor show on the day.  I have kit that shouldn’t take me too long to transition between the three disciplines, I have a bike that shouldn’t hold me up.  Goddamn, it’s all down to me and my mental battles in training and on the day.  The giver-upper gremlin’s perfect hunting ground.

The gremlin has been with me throughout my life, particularly for physical challenges.  I like exercising, but only to a point.  If it ever gets beyond that point and actually gets hard, the gremlin wakes up and spends really quite a lot of energy trying to convince me to stop.  Is it just me that does this?  I hope not.  I risked sharing this weirdness with a friend and she told me her husband has a similar gremlin, which made me feel a bit better.  Weirdness shared is weirdness halved and all that.

In learning to swim front crawl for this event, I’ve realised it’s a really, really long time since I put myself in a situation where I genuinely can’t do something and struggle hugely to learn.  It’s not easy.  Duh.  Statement of the obvious.  But experiencing in practice what you intellectually know in theory still feels revelationary, even at nearly forty years old.

Do children feel a similar way about all the things they learn from scratch?  It’s so easy as an adult to avoid situations that truly push you. You almost need to seek them out – life can get stuck in a comfortable groove very easily, which feels, well, comfortable.

For children, by contrast, doing and learning new things is life.  How brilliant is that – new experiences and discoveries being your daily life.  We adults could learn from that.  Maybe one New Year’s resolution each year to do a completely new, out of comfort zone thing would do it.

I read an article in Red magazine recently about a well-being theory called ‘flourishing’ from an eminent psychologist, Martin Seligman (apparently he’s a positive psychology guru).  He thinks it’s no longer enough just to consider human happiness, we need to consider four other dimensions to life fulfillment and wellbeing on top of positive feelings: our engagement with the people and world around us (our flow), the quality of our relationships, finding meaning and purpose in our lives and accomplishment of goals we set ourselves.  Each element has to satisfy three criteria: it contributes to wellbeing; many people pursue it for its own sake (not just in pursuit of other elements); and it can be defined and measured independently of the others.

I like this idea – fulfillment and life satisfaction is about more than feeling happy.  Do I feel happy when I go swimming? No, mostly not, I still find it hard work and nowhere near as pleasurable as running or cycling, but it is satisfying because it contributes to achieving a goal and makes me feel proud of myself for doing something hard.

Making choices I can feel proud of, doing hard things, positive interactions with people, helping a friend, being a good parent and a good partner – these are things that make me happy with who I am.  I know it’s a teeny tiny small thing next to the realities so many people face in the world, but taking on this triathlon is contributing to my ‘flourishing’.

Of course I haven’t actually completed the event yet, nor indeed the training, so the gremlin has plenty of time to do its worst.  It’s a tad late for a New Year’s resolution, but, nonetheless, I think mine is to build an enormous mental mallet that bashes the hell out of the gremlin as soon as it appears.  Without it on my shoulder who knows what I could be capable of.

Ps If you’re interested in the theory of flourishing, check out Martin Seligman’s talk about it on The RSA , or this Guardian article,  or this excerpt from his book. . Or buy the June issue of the UK’s Red magazine.


Sobs, splits and super sweet blogs

Tired, snot-filled children, new routines, mountains of ironing, brain-ache logistical juggling. School’s back and don’t I know it.

I was very much looking forward to Littlest H starting nursery school last week. Dare I admit I was desperate for it.  Not only have I survived nine months full-time mum-ing (yay, I can do it), but (wait for it) I’ve actually enjoyed it.  But by the end of the summer holidays, I was definitely ready for a breather; some time-out from being just Mummy and Queen of my Domestic Realm.

Littlest H is so ready for nursery,” I told myself. “And he’ll love it – all his friends are going, he’ll see Little H at playtime, he’ll do cool new stuff, learn social skills away from me, etc. etc.

For someone who is supposedly of reasonable intelligence, I really do a great line in failing to think.  Or, at least, to think through. Usually at the very, very last moment, or, come to think of it, once something has just happened, I suddenly work it through in my head and realise it had consequences I wasn’t ready for.  I honestly try hard to learn from this, yet continually manage not to.

And so it was with nursery.  I rocked up with Littlest H on day 1, ready to drop and run with a cheery ‘see you later, gorgeous’ and a big hug.  Imagine my surprise when he clung like a limpet, had to be prised off me by his teacher, and wailed at top volume as he ran full pelt after me into the playground.  Versions of that have played out every day since – heart-wrenching sobs from him followed by slightly pathetic, trying-to-hide-it sobs from me round the corner.  They don’t make it easy for us, these little people. I know it’s good for him and his social skills / school readiness, I know he is fine a few minutes later, I know his anxiety won’t last forever.  But in the meantime, it’s a bit of a downer on the otherwise miraculous sudden appearance of that most precious parental commodity: Time To Oneself.

Funny how opening that pandora’s box almost makes having a couple of hours a day to myself feel worse than none.  It’s a bit like when you’re hunkered down in a massively busy work period and there’s no option, you just have to get on with it.  Once it’s over, the blinkers fall away and you see what a mess your life is in.  Having some quality me-time seems to have opened up a sealed away part of me and made me want more, almost (but not quite) to the point of resenting the kids once they are back again from midday onwards.  Weird, I know.  That too will pass.

I’m not complaining, mind you. It’s many years since I could attempt to train with any likelihood of actually achieving my aims.  I dutifully record my running split times and heart rate, noting how little my pace changes, how close to my max heart rate I normally am, and feeling slightly over-awed by trying to do anything about either.  I’m ruefully realising how long it is since I pushed myself out of my comfort zone physically. It’s easy enough to be all gung-ho in theory – talking a good game, signing up for races, downloading training plans, buying kit.  But getting out there and going faster for longer and more often than is enjoyable, hurts.  Really hurts. And my nearly 40 year old body is complaining. The knee support is back on, my feet are sore, my left hip aches.  Mental toughness seems to have seeped away as comfortably active years have sidled on.  I do have a pin up spurring me on though.

Look at those legs! That stomach!  Wow. I know, I know.  Aiming at an Olympic cyclist’s body is a teeny bit unrealistic, but hey, whatever keeps me going. (Picture: Guy Levy/BBC/PA)

And then there’s a gem of a surprise, a nomination from fellow blogger, Mrs D’s Maunderings, for a Super Sweet Blogger award.  Me? Really? Cool :-).  Apparently I, in return, have to answer a few questions and nominate my own bountiful bloggers – a happy virtuous circle of a process.  So see below for more on that, and wishing you happy days till next time.

1. Cookies or Cake – Cake all the way.  Home-made, moist, preferably a big wedge of it with a really good coffee. Often swayed by weird combos – last one was orange, pistachio and polenta.  Yum.

2. Chocolate or Vanilla – Tough call.  Really good vanilla is a total delight.  But then again…

3. What is your favourite sweet treat? – Too many to choose.  Most anticipated and savoured: a sweetly tart lemon tart, a warm, gooey chocolate brownie with ice-cream, crunchy, tart fruit crumble with custard… I’ll stop or I won’t be able to.

4. When do you crave sweet things the most? – 3 or 4 in the afternoon.  A lifetime of tea-time I can’t escape.

5. If you had a sweet nickname what would it be? – Little Miss Variety.  Nothing gets me more ridiculously excited than trying something new and exotic-sounding.

And … drum roll…my Baker’s Dozen super sweet blog nominees are…

Keeping up with the Holsbys for tasty treats and parental / general life chuckles

MrsMcIndoe for cool crafts and how they happen

A Detailed House for a plethora of house do-er up-er ideas, both cute and cool

The Book Sniffer for fab children’s picture book reviews. Find the new stuff before it’s even out there.

Playing by the Book for more cool kids books coupled with crafty fun to complement them

World Moms Blog for wonderfully diverse international takes on motherhood

The Bumble Files for posts that resonate and amuse

Brute Reason for an invariably forthright, often thought-provoking read

ClotildaJamCracker for hilarious, off-the-wall stories

Diapers or Wine, a recent discovery that I’m enjoying very much

Suburbia Interrupted for five kids craziness, and posts unafraid to tackle the underbelly of family life and relationships with humour and candour

From Mouths of Babes another recent find I’m enjoying getting into

A tale of unanticipated consequences

A proud school mum shows off her tandem skydive photo, a tick on her 40th year to do list.   I think: “what a good idea, a 40th year to do list.” I turn and ask a dad-friend if he’s ever fancied having a go at triathlon.

While slightly hysterically laughing about sudden triathlon suggestion, an intensely active, just-done-a-marathon dad expresses interest in joining in.

One week later

Wife of marathon man tells me he is pestering her to find out which triathlon.  Gulp.

Two weeks later

Little H and I attend Olympics.  I get fired up about sport, trying new things, the reward of effort, leading by example.  Manage to commit to triathlon goal on blog (see here if you missed post ‘I don’t want to be in Olympics’).  Now public. Double gulp.

Two weeks later

Arrive on holiday to discover French gite hosts are triathletes, indeed one is a coach and ex-pro, no less.  Watch them disappear off for daily bike rides, swims, runs.  Feel a teensy bit envious of lifestyle, bodies.

One week later

Husband asks casually over wine and cheese if I’m serious about triathlon.  I (deep breath, big glug) nod yes.  Husband calls my bluff. Offers early Christmas present of coaching by ex-pro triathlete.  Gulps so big just manage not to choke on wine.

Spend hour with pro talking goals, training plans, races, kit.  Express concern re swimming – never learnt front crawl. Bravado surfaces – maybe I could do or watch a race this season to get a feel for it.  Shopping list grows; from goggles to road bike to gym membership to swim lessons.  Realisation of extent of challenge deepens.  Feel excited, apprehensive, a bit gung-ho.

Last night of holiday

Have swimming lesson in small gite pool. Have to stop, gasping for breath after one length of 5 metres. All bravado deflated to fear.  The reality of racing a 400m swim hits.  Coach suggests how exciting it is to be starting right at the beginning.  Decoded: Wow, she really wasn’t joking when she said she couldn’t do front crawl.

Kit list gets longer.  Many swim aids required, starting with swimsuit.  Coach, husband and I agree halter neck, boy short tankini not really appropriate.

Two days later

On return home, training time negotiations and kit shopping begin.  Whenever brain idle, thoughts turn to triathlon.  Mix of excitement (Cool – a new, difficult challenge! A chance to be properly fit! Professional help to do my best and not just ‘enjoy the experience and not embarrass myself’!), nerves (Can I conquer front crawl – being forced to control breathing when working hard in particular. Will I have the mental strength for proper training that hurts and takes sustained commitment) and wondering about all the unknowns (How does it feel to swim with loads of other people? Will I ride and run in a swim/wetsuit? How much will it hurt not to have crotch padding for a 20km bike ride?  Is the transition from bike to run as hard as everyone says?  Will this take over my life completely or just mostly? Will I want to do another one?  Will all this cost and effort and using up of husband support points be worth it?).

5.40am Monday morning after holiday

Out for a run before Mr H off to work.   And so the journey begins.

Time travel

Time takes longer once you’ve had kids.  B.C. (before children), adventurous holidays were a few months or perhaps a year away if lots of saving, planning or training was required.  P.C., our outlook has stretched out to five years ahead or more.

“Once they’re five we’ll go snowboarding again.”

“If we start saving now, then when they’re about 7 we’ll do our dream hiking / camping family USA road trip.”

“Once they’re teenagers we will get them into proper multi-day hiking. They’ll thank us for it when they’re older.”

“Once she can swim I’ll take her sailing.”

“Do you think we’ll be able to do the travelling bits we missed before retirement?” (Trekking in Patagonia and the Himalayas particularly difficult omissions)

In a recent newspaper adventure travel feature, British explorer, Ben Fogle, was quoted saying “I want my children to understand there’s more to life than a sun lounger”. I do too, Ben, yet still we appear to be packing up for our annual sun holiday in a couple of days.  It’s been a five year world tour of beaches, ice cream and play parks, utterly distinct from the travel bug itineraries of holidays B.C.

We did try, and we even had some early successes.  Before I went back to work after baby no. 1 we had two weeks in Chamonix in the Alps, making use of a family-friendly ski company’s summer offering.  We had a great time, particularly on the days Little H was in childcare.  Was it worth it? Yes, but she was a baby.  She couldn’t fix us with tear-filled eyes, pleading to stay with us and pulling every heart string with the realisation she was being dumped in nursery on holiday.  Childcare just doesn’t seem right once they see through the over-excited parental gushing about face paints or baking and show you they know you’re just palming them off.

So why have we let travel bugs lie dormant for so long?  Realism. The fact is, holidays with kids are more enjoyable if the kids are at the centre of it more time than they’re not. At least, that’s how it works for us and our kids – I’m sure other kids are way more amenable.  Dragging ours on expensive, difficult, adult-centric holidays with higher risks and fewer options to manage them just hasn’t appealed.  The flights are longer, the travel more arduous, the attractions less able to be enjoyed and all in all, the experience doesn’t seem worth it.  For once my ‘hang the hassle, let’s have the experience’ attitude fails me.  Why not save ourselves the disappointment and accept that a few years of holidays where not much happens will be ok.  It might even be a form of fun.  At the very least, the weather will almost definitely be better and sharing the load is a welcome change, even if it can sometimes feel like my domestic job is just the same with fewer facilities.

We’re nearly at the first milestones in our years of wistful longing anyway.  Little H’s interest in places, people and history is increasing as school opens her eyes and her attention span improves, along with her stamina and willingness to try new or difficult things (sometimes).  Littlest H is only two seasons away from five, when he can try more than an hour a day of skiing.  Our local sailing club will take kids from six, so I can start to re-find that passion myself through my daughter’s discovery next summer (Yay, Swallows & Amazons here we come!).  We take them out regularly for walks, albeit day hikes or backpacking are still a bit ambitious.  Next year Littlest H will ride his bike properly so we can have longer family outings or contemplate bikes on holiday.  It will all get better here on in, I know.

I’ve been reading various blogs about amazing families travelling all over the place with kids – Keeping up with the Holsbys was one, Travelladywithbaby another. Reading Ben Fogle’s first list of adventure ideas was inspiring, as well as feeling smug about the ones I’ve been lucky enough to experience in life already.  But I must admit, I’m still looking forward to two weeks in a converted French farm with other families we can hopefully get to know, easy access to pool, beach, a play area and cheesy family attractions.   I have my pile of books I will no doubt return with mostly unread, but the hope is there.  The weather will be better than here, “Your turn” will be our stock phrase and each of us will take the opportunities we can to relax, sleep and enjoy each other’s and the kids’ company, good and bad.  No, it won’t become an inspirational memory for the kids, but there’s time for that.  Right now, it’s time to pack the car with sun paraphernalia and get in the zone for early morning sun lounger towel throwing.  We can’t have anyone else getting gold medal at that, can we.

I don’t want to be in the Olympics

This is Little H’s latest refrain, hot on the heels of reluctance to take part in the school fun run once she realised she might not win. It even surfaced when soaking up the incredible atmosphere in ring-side seats at the men’s artistic gymnastics yesterday.

What to do…Do I go all Amy Chua on her and ferociously encourage a competitive, focused, ‘winning is best’ mentality?  Or do I foster a more laissez-faire spirit of gentlemanly sportsmanship – ‘trying hard and taking part is what matters’?  Or, do I do nothing and leave it up to her to find her way, telling me what she wants to try or not try, letting her change her mind as she sees fit, dropping one interest in favour of another, or, indeed, keeping them all.

At five years old, everyone gets a medal and too much openly competitive spirit with peers is tempered with quiet parental asides to remember others’ feelings and not be unkind.  Well, that’s how it goes down in Surrey, anyway, heartland of middle-class England. If the stereotype of Asian parenting is true, I suspect the same doesn’t apply in middle-class China or Japan. Which is right?  Which parenting style is going to turn out better children? And therein lies two big questions: what is ‘better’ and what is the role of a parent in achieving it.

Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother,  brought these questions to the fore, making me explore my own values and beliefs, even though I haven’t ever cogently articulated them before – to myself, let alone to anyone else.  What do I believe life is for?  What does it mean to reach one’s fullest potential?  Is being happy the best end goal? How much is it about the goal versus the journey? What core values and beliefs do I believe I need to instill in my children and what am I willing to dedicate and sacrifice to achieve that, assuming Mr H agrees?  And anyway, where’s the child’s view in all of this?

Big questions, particularly for a Sunday evening.  I don’t think I have fully formed answers yet, but I do think it’s important to consciously consider them and talk about it with Mr H.  We also need to stay conscious to it as our kids do stuff, share their views and feelings and watch how we go about our lives.

When Little H shared her reluctance to take part in the 2km school fun run if she didn’t win, I knew how I responded was important.  I heard myself carefully trying to balance the sentiment that taking part is fun even without winning, with the view that if you want to win/succeed, you need to work hard and believe in yourself.

London 2012’s slogan is ‘Inspiring a generation’.  The row of people in front of us watching the gymnastics yesterday were treated to Little H’s embodiment of this: wonder, excitement and a deluge of questions and comments.  Could one man win the Olympics for their country; why were the Chinese not being very good today; how does a country win the Olympics; how do people get to be in the Olympics; I don’t think I could be in the Olympics; I wish colouring was in the Olympics; I wish I could watch you doing that, Mummy (cue the whole row turning round to say they’d quite like to see that too).

I grasped the opportunity to talk about self-belief, awe-inspiring skill and strength, hard graft, enjoying proud moments, wanting the best of yourself.  Watching her absorb and react to the electric atmosphere was worth every penny we paid for the tickets.  Seeing Team GB’s men win their group wasn’t half bad either.

We’re going to be watching, listening to and talking about sport a lot over the next two weeks.  I want her to be inspired, to see the joy and pride that comes with putting your all into something you believe in, to think maybe it could be her competing or being one of the best singers, dancers, actors or techie geniuses representing her country in a spectacular show like the opening ceremony, to start to dream and to see that even for the best, dreams are only realised through hard work.

And I guess through that I answer my own question about potential.  Personally, I think that if an individual has the potential to be great, then that is what they should strive for in life.  Yes, it takes sacrifice, yes it asks a lot of those you love, yes you need to step back and enjoy the journey, but striving for a dream is worth the effort, whatever direction that dream takes you, practical considerations allowing (oh dear, I can already hear that conversation – blow the ideals, darling, where’s the rent coming from).

Even the smallest of things worth doing in life take effort, determination and belief that you can.  So my message to Little H and all other littlies is start with having fun colouring the best picture you can, singing your heart out, trying your best in a 2km school fun run and let it flow from there.

There’s time for the hard lesson of life that no-one’s great at everything, and everyone has to choose where to focus their energies.  For now, I think my job as a parent is to encourage her, to enable her to try as wide a spectrum of fun things as possible, to believe in her, to help her believe in herself and help her to enjoy putting effort into what she does and reaping the rewards.

As for me, I’m signing up for a triathlon next year. And if we do get our house extension, and thereby space for a piano, I’m taking it up again.  I want to do both for me, but if it helps Little H see that trying new things is hard and fun, that it’s important to start with ‘I think I can if I try’, it might not be Carnegie Hall or the Olympics but hey, we all start somewhere.  We can all do our bit to inspire a generation.  My new generation is sleeping on it.