A Thursday Rant: Kids birthday parties

Before children, I thought the wedding industry was the most commercialised con industry preying on emotion-ridden occasions, but now I know different. That honour goes to kids parties.  How did we get here, when kids (parents) feel the need to invite 20-30 friends to a hall for a (probably) cheesy entertainer to charge 200 quid or more for an hour, followed by mountains of E number food (the healthy stuff is always left behind, however high we parents pile it on their plates), a much-anticipated cake and expectant faces waiting for a party bag filled with plastic tat and more sugar?

Okay, so I may be being a tad harsh.  There are variations: less cost = more E numbers, a dose of playground politics or more stress to organise yourself; more cost = healthier, more interesting food, stunning cake creations and different, or mildly less cheesy entertainment in a slightly less well-used venue…*sigh*

The guilt-trip parent trap is just like the wedding couple trap – if I don’t do it, will my child  feel hard done by, if we don’t do all the typical things will the kids/parents think we are cheapskates; if I don’t invite so-and-so, will the parent get the hump, let alone the child; if I buy a cake instead of make it… and so on.

Even more discombobulating (my word of the week, isn’t it fabulous?) was last year, Little H’s 5th birthday.  I decided to see how much it would cost to do a DIY version. So I chose three crafty activities, bought all the bits and hosted it myself, with craft, then food, then party games. What I failed to register was that 5 years old, the first year of school here in the UK, is when parents assume parties are drop and run.  So there I was, faced with managing mask, jewellery and paper chain making with 20 four to six year old boys and girls.  Thank bloomin’ god for my husband, mum and the smattering of my friends who stuck around.  One friend commented it was lovely to go to a traditional party for once.  It was great, but it was such hard work for me, especially while working, and when I totted up the cost it was nearly the same as an all-in venue / entertainment / food option would have been (although we did end up with a lot of crafty bits left at home, to be fair).

And it’s now that time of year again.  I started the venue call around with a heavy heart, feeling both resentful of the industry of the thing and totally conflicted by the fact that I knew Little H would love a party.  And, if I’m honest, a lot of my rant is about me, not Little H.  She would be happy at home, but I can’t bear the idea of loads of hyper kids (and mess) rampaging through our house on a winter’s day.  She would be happy with the same venues/entertainers as her friends, I like variety and the idea of something different.

But I’m very glad to report we’ve found an excellent solution.  Little H is happy, I’m happy, Mr H is happy (Littlest H just wants to know he’s coming too).  We’re doing a cinema and lunch outing. Five friends who we chose carefully together to be people she actually likes and plays with.

Very little politics to manage, only five invitations to make (aren’t they cute?!), only two calls to organise cinema and lunch, no need for a huge cake, and party bags replaced by cinema/restaurant entertainment goody bags.  I am totally in love with the small event version of children’s birthday celebrations.  I don’t even care if they eat oysters and champagne for lunch or their body weight in over-priced cinema pick’n’mix, the lack of hassle and stress is fabulous.

I’m already watching the seven year olds’ party options with interest – roll on the small home-based or outing-based options with a few good mates.  When it gets to her wedding, Little H is going to go absolutely bonkers…

Rant over 🙂

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Ambition: does being a parent help or hinder?

If ambition is striving to better one’s situation (or self), and happiness is satisfaction with where your life is now, where does parenting sit on the spectrum?  A blog post about the trade-off between ambition and happiness got me thinking about this question.

Quite frankly, parenting often feels like it ticks neither box – as a friend put it, it’s more a case of survival.  And never more than after a full-on week of half-term, even if the kids were mostly lovely.  But if I had to choose, I’d say it makes me happy more than it fulfils my ambition.

For me, ambition has always been about whether I am reaching my full potential (a bit of a stretch goal, let’s be honest).  Being a ‘good’ parent, although incredibly important to me, doesn’t feel like it sits in the same box.  I think that’s because striving for good parenting is a given, not a choice – the choice was made when we leapt into parenthood in the first place.

More often being a parent has felt like a brake on ambition.  I know few mothers who haven’t had to readjust their ambitions as they realise parenting is too important to squeeze too hard, and squeezing everything else can be almost as tough. I’m sure many fathers feel the same way, but, for whatever reasons, it seems more often the women who choose to / have to take the career hit.  I certainly felt that way before I stepped off the hamster wheel to find a better way.

And that goal, to find a better way, is where ambition and parenting get interesting.  The handcuff of something you simply cannot ‘not do’ forces an increasing number of women to get creative, look at different avenues, really think about what they could and want to do.  It becomes a driver of ambition, not a brake – almost liberating if it wasn’t so bloomin’ stressful.

How many women do you know who have agonised over how they can continue their career after kids, only to explore completely different and ultimately fulfilling directions to find that elusive fit of fulfilling work and family life?  I know quite a few.  And I find their journeys really uplifting.

Yes, nearly all of those I know have been through a tough transition period, many returning to their pre-children career through one or two kids, others SAHM, but all ultimately coming up with an idea they believe in. They cope with the huge stress and knocks that come with taking a risk and trying something new.  But their successes give me hope.

When I read that blog post, I felt a penny dropped.  All my life I’ve been trying to balance striving to reach my potential and satisfaction with the here and now.  I don’t have the answer, but I know I have it in me to do something different.   Parenting was a brake, but now it is a driver of my ambition – to find a fulfilling job that fits as well as possible with family and (the biggest challenge) pays what we need it to pay.

I am inspired by the amazing women I am watching take risks and push themselves to do brilliant things.  My fave five are linked below.  Help me and my other readers feel inspired: tell me, who are your fave five?

Botox Babes – would you go plastic?

I had dinner the other night with three feisty, successful, attractive women in their early forties.   Think Surrey Sex in the City.  Two of them (let’s say Samantha and Miranda) were discussing which fillers they will have as they get nearer 50 – both laughingly certain they will fill in the lines demarcating their cheeks from nose/mouth area and probably some kind of double chin eliminator too (assuming they get one). (Picture courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Not if, not why, just what and when.

Really?  Two of the most intelligent, attractive, independent, articulate and confident women I know and respect want to have cosmetic work done?  For themselves too, I might add, not for a man.  And there was I with a (relatively uninformed) world view that women who indulged in it were bonkers publicity-junkies, women with very low self-esteem, and those in the public eye unable to resist our society’s gender and ageing stereotypes. Oh, and the women who have it for very understandable reasons, where medical issues or accidents mean it can genuinely change their lives through their own and other’s perceptions of them.

I was shocked, naively, perhaps. These women’s, this type of woman’s, choice left me wondering whether I’ve come to a considered enough opinion.

Why does cosmetic surgery feel an order of magnitude different to wearing make-up, dying grey hair or using skin pigmentation-reduction face creams?  Particularly now we have short-term, less invasive treatments like Botox – the so-called ‘lunchtime’ treatments.  Yet it still feels like a big line to cross.

Analysing my feelings, I struggle to justify why it seems so different to these accepted age-defying measures that virtually every woman engages in, in some way, as they get older.  It is more expensive, yes.  It is going under the skin, so feels a more serious decision, yes.  Infection or other problems might be more likely, yes.  But is it any more vain or less acceptable?

Personally, I do believe it is still less socially acceptable, a bit of a taboo.

Although cosmetic surgery is often in the media, I think it is mostly as an object of ridicule, or indulging our fascination with celebrity appearance.

That is counterbalanced somewhat by ageism debate and commentary such as that about the pressures on female TV presenters to look younger than their male counterparts (see here, here or here), or indeed this article about increasing numbers of professional men getting Botox to get ahead.

Whatever the media profile, ageing is a difficult concept to embrace given it is a constant reminder of the diminishing time to do the things with your life your youthful self so animatedly set out to do.  And our society’s obsession with youth makes us feel further and further from that ideal once grey hair and wrinkles force themselves on us.

I do also wonder what message cosmetic treatment sends to our children.  A woman’s body is not ok unless it looks youthful.  Feeling under-confident? Not getting ahead in the workplace? Get a shot of Botox and all will be better. 

If an idea or image is presented often enough, in enough guises, it starts to feel like a truth, an accepted belief or norm.  I think that’s a bit scary for my daughter’s generation.  Or indeed, my son’s.

One of the commenters on my last post said if you teach your kids discernment they can work it out themselves”.  I think that applies here, too.  All we can do as parents is help our children build a strong base of belief in themselves and who they are, and teach them to think for themselves.  Even with my kids so young, they often ask questions for which the honest answers are uncomfortable – “Mummy, why do you wear make-up?”  for example.  I can choose whether I answer or not, or how truthfully, but, as is the case so often, children hold the mirror up to our / our world’s uncomfortable truths in all their glory.

I can’t think of an answer I would be happy with myself giving to my daughter if I had cosmetic work done. Either I’m too vain or too weak to resist societal norms of appearance.  But, to be honest, the same could be said for most of the appearance-changing things I do to myself.  So I’m not judging my friends for their choice – who’s to say I won’t feel the same way as my own lines deepen – I’ve certainly found greying hair enough of a trauma, and there’s nothing like an absolute statement of principle to make you look silly a few years later.

It’s more that I’m interested to understand whether there is a growing cohort of intelligent, thinking, confident women in their prime thinking like this.

What’s your view?

PS As a slightly silly footnote, while discovering that breast augmentation is the top British plastic surgery procedure, I also discovered that one of the industry bodies is called baaps.  He he he.

Re-finding the mojo magic

It’s a funny thing, mojo.  I think having kids mutates it.  The moments that fill my ‘I love my life’ mojo cup have changed.  Or so I thought.  But this week I’ve asked myself, have they really, or is that the illusion I hold onto to love my life rather than wish it were different?

Take my new sparkly shoes.  Aren’t they GORGEOUS?

And check out the lovely posh make up in front, all new and full of the promise of nights out, especially when coupled with sparkly feet.

Add a hairdresser trip to sort out my wild-lion-on-a-bad-day look…

…And a soupcon of London cool (‘scuse the sex shop photo, but it’s actually the front of La Bodega Negra, an uber-cool Mexican taqueria in the heart of Soho, inside below, complete with gimp suit behind the restaurant reception desk!)

And voila, my twenties mojo resurfaces.  You know, that mojo that lives in the city, knows where the cool hangouts are, stays out late drinking fabulous cocktails (bugger the hangover) and having conversations not about kids or domestic life or hardworking husbands or schools or the mother’s juggling act, and then goes dancing.  Mojo that ends with pictures like this:

 We used to have loads of these – us on a night out, looking a bit rosy in the cheek.  But, as we realised when asked by the fabulously fun women we were out with, the last time we went out properly like this together was at least seven years ago.  That’s a loooooonnnnng time.  Plenty of nights out separately, but together and in the big smoke – that’s a whole different babysitter ballgame.

And do you know what, it felt brilliant.  My sister-in-law asked me if the evening made me feel old.  Quite the opposite – it made me feel young – young, alive and happy.  I wasn’t a mother, I was me.  The me that loves letting my hair down and going a bit mad, especially with Mr H. Not the comfortably middle class domestic me who stays local, has an allotment, mostly socialises with gorgeous but pretty similar / similar lifestage people, and chooses the cultural or physical options like opera or ballet or hiking or biking for any time Mr H and I get together sans enfants.  Now, I’m all excited about using up some grandparent looking-after-the-kids points to go up to London and go out clubbing and stay with our new friends without rushing back for sitters or horribly early bouncing children.

Funnily enough though, re-finding that mojo hasn’t diminished the joy of its family and domestic life mutations.  Nor has it made me resent where my life is now. I love my life – I have a gorgeous husband, two beautiful children (even if they do wind me up immensely too often to think about), a nice enough house in a good town, a load of amazing friends and right now, some pretty exciting personal projects on the go, whether finding my voice through writing, learning to swim freestyle for my first triathlon or exploring a potential business opportunity with a dear friend.  Do I wish I were a young Londoner myself again?  Not really.  Way more angst, sore heads and shopping than I can be bothered with, let alone haemorrhaging money every weekend (ahem, let’s just ignore the haemorrhaging children represent…).

But last weekend did teach me something.  It taught me it’s important to indulge the old mojo every so often, even more so to do it with Mr H, and, when possible, up in the thick of life, in the big smoke.  Not to play it too safe, not to always take the more sensible options.  Not to forget we’re still young, the big 4-0 on the horizon or not.  There’s life in the old girl yet…

An Ode to Poo

Although poo is just nature’s way,

A lesser part I wish it could play

In life at home with kids all day,

Where nothing keeps the stuff at bay.

 

In baby years poo made me wince,

Then nappies went, and ever since

I wonder why I made a fuss,

Such harmless, easy, fragrant stuff.

Now, I’m bent over toilet bowl,

Gassed by odour, fresh and foul.

 

A friendship’s really sealed for me,

When their child tells me it’s not just wee.

I feel quite stoic, really kind,

When wiping their child’s soiled behind.

I never thought I’d get to know,

The pong of other kids strain-and-go.

 

As for disasters, don’t get me started,

In pubs or parks or good friend’s parties.

We’ve all been there – the sudden runs,

The not-quite-made-the toilet ones,

Wondering where we can begin,

When poo presents from toe to chin.

 

And then there’s walking to our school,

Cursing dog-owners, thoughtless and cruel,

Leaving turds right in the path

For shoes and scooters to splat in half.

Really, people, don’t you know

How long it takes that pong to go?

How deeply poo gets in the sole,

And brings us mothers up to boil?

We’ve HAD ENOUGH thanks very much,

As if beating the bell weren’t hard enough.

 

Now that our kids are five and three,

It’s nearly time for some relief.

We’re fast approaching the longed-for point

When poo is personal, no longer joint.

Just one more year of wiping bums,

And then we’re into things like worms.

Perhaps by then I’ll get to crap

All on my own, door closed, no chat.

 

But now, of course, all smells are noticed,

Commented on in broadcast voices.

Is there no end to poo-filled days?

I fear not, I’m sad to say.

For don’t forget there’s teenage jokes,

And god knows what else they’ll think of, folks.

 

Yes, I fear that scats are here to stay,

Following me right through the day.

Best gird my loins and peg my nose,

And focus on some other woes.

Yes, I fear that scats are here to stay,

Oh happy, happy, happy days.

Geek breeding

A friend was telling me her husband is thinking of buying their six year old daughter a kids computer programming thingumijig for Christmas.

“What, you want to turn your daughter into a geek, do you?” I teased.

“Rather than wanting her to be pretty and popular, you mean?” she retorted.

Touche, Mrs L, touché!

Computers and other programmed gadgets are increasingly fundamental to life as we know it.  For our children, they will have no other way of being, will never have known anything else.

So? So…understanding how technology works, being confident with it, and knowing how to manage it will open up a world of possibilities, being able to be a Really Useful Geek. It might even make you a fortune, just look at Mr Microsoft, Mr Apple, Mr IBM, Mr Google, Mr Name-any-other-massive-multi-billion-dollar-techie-enterprise-started-by-a-geek-or-two.

Hang on.  I didn’t see any Miss, Ms or Mrs in that list.  What’s going on?

Now, I’m sure there are some leading light lady geeks out there raking in the profits from their techy-ness, but isn’t it interesting that the ones that trip off my tongue are all of the swinging appendage variety (pendulous boobs excepted of course… then again…)?  Even a quick google search hasn’t given me any comparable world-beating female techie founding… umm… mothers.

In fact, digging into where we actually are in the UK on the first step on that road – girls studying maths and computers – I found a startling statistic in this great article.  Figures show that although in 2011 there was a 60-40 male-female split in those taking A-level maths, the rate was 92-8 in computer science.

Wow.  No wonder there aren’t so many Miss, Ms or Mrs tech geek success stories out there, at least, on this side of the pond.  Is being a geek the new feminist frontier, I wonder?  Women who aren’t frightened of technology and how it works, who make it work for them and do cool stuff with it.  Is that what we should want for our daughters?

I can’t think why not (yes, Mrs L, you are entitled to feel smug here). It doesn’t mean they can’t be good at other stuff, does it.  What it might do is  mean they get further along their educational journey believing they are as capable as their brothers or male peers at technology and, possibly more importantly, finding it fun, interesting and useful.   They can feel in control of it, not vice versa.

And despite my pretty strong maths / engineering education, I wonder if Little H sees enough tech-savvy-ness at home to help her down that road. Well, sees it from me, really, if I’m honest. Because even if you are a girl who got and enjoyed maths at school, even if you studied engineering, even if you went so far as to learn a little bit of C++, you can still be someone who shouts at your phone/ipad/pc/sky box/game console. You can still be helpless after you’ve tried turning said device off and on again.  You can still routinely wonder if throwing or hitting a device would help.  You can still defer demurely to male resilience and enthusiasm in the face of broken technology.  Geek chic might have a way to go, but I think it’s worth a shot.  How about you?

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