Illusion

I have used the expression “I’m so sorry to be a let down, I’ll make it up to you” twice in two days.  But really, it is probably my most commonly used phrase (other than “I love you”, “turn it down” and “will you just get your shoes on…”)  And this is a real problem for me.  Because I hate letting people down. But seem to do it on an hourly basis.  And, as I promise to make it up to the people I am so grateful to have in my life, there is a little voice in my head snort-laughing, asking “eh…and when exactly are you going to make it up to them – 2042?”

I see so many people on my little hand-held screen, living the life that seems impossible to me.  Nights out, nights away, girlie weekends, cocktails, romantic breaks…holidays – God, the holidays and hot dog leg photos that kill me a little inside, as my own pasty skin turns a shade of green – and of perfectly happy children, clean and content, eating meals in fancy restaurants that I want to go to, of teenagers spending happy quality time with their mums having girly lunches, mocktails, manicures and memories.  And I just think “how do they do it?”

Because I just can’t seem to.  I’m not at all a jealous person. It is not that I yearn for extravagance on a monetary scale.  But I would like the extravagance of time.  I used to compare myself to other people in terms of their age and their perceived wealth: the size of their house, the car they drove, the clothes they wore – where were they at their stage in life compared to where I was?  Why was I not where they were? I felt unworthy of friendship where I was unequal financially.  But not any more.  That’s a self-poisoning approach.  The size of your house and the car you drive has no bearing on my life at all.  If we’re friends and you live in a dream house, then I can guarantee that I’m still more delighted for our friendship than for your house, beautiful as it may be, while secretly being grateful that I don’t have 4 bathrooms to clean   – seriously, how do you do that?

Because I just can’t seem to.  (And I only have one bathroom).  I can’t seem to keep on top of anything.  But it occurred to me that, from the outside looking in, my life might look different through someone else’s little hand-held screen.  The fact that I feel so lacking in most areas in life, especially the things I do with my kids at weekends, during school holidays, the fact that they moan about me “promising to take them swimming, to the trampoline park, to the cinema, paint pictures, tie dye t-shirts, bake cakes…*infinity*” but don’t, means that whenever I do manage to leave the house with them, do something with them,  I feel that pressure of ‘checking in’ and hashtagging in a moment of self-indulgent “hurrah, I am winning at motherhood today, look what I achieved.”  The same goes for the rarest of nights out with my partner, my family, my friends.  So rare these victorious moments of life seem to me that they are celebrated on social media.  “Look, I can do it too – do you see me smiling…?” But they are illusions of reality.  They don’t show the piles of washing, of folded clothes lying in wait of a cupboard or a floor (or a return to the washing basket still folded in some cases), the unemptied dishwasher and queue of patient plates on the sink waiting for their turn to be clean; pink mould (guarantee you’ll never hold a Dulux colour chart containing the spectrum of pink to discover a small rectangle entitled ‘pink shower mould’ and think “aha, that’s the very colour for the nursery…”). I used to feel like I was doing just about the bare minimum to get by. Now I’m not even managing that. 

The victory of ‘life’ for a few hours is always at the sacrifice of something else: work,  my mum’s free time to provide childcare for me, ‘quality’ time with the children, a clean toilet; sleep.  Cleanliness.

waltons

But, what will my kids remember – the pink mould in the shower or the impromptu “fuck it” outings?  I’m actually not sure because I don’t have any comparison.  I grew up in a house quite often referred to by others as ‘The Waltons’ – something I always hated and didn’t appreciate until later just how lucky I was.  But I think I may have actually been some distant relative, acquired from some wayward aunt somewhere that nobody spoke of.    Because I am definitely not of Walton descent.   I grew up in an immaculate home, where my mum wallpapered, could apply specialist plaster effects to the walls and ceilings, baked, cooked, made ball gowns, bridesmaid dresses, knitted, painted masterpieces, threw dinner parties and never once – not once – produced a meal that was ready prepared or pre-cut in any way, shape or form.  Not even her shortbread for the coffee was shop-bought.  All while running a business, going to college and being the sole housekeeper, magic kisses provider, confidant and having dinner on the table every night for my dad coming home from work at 5:33pm.  There was never anything out of place, never a time when someone could knock in the front door unexpectedly and it not be ok for them to come in.

And now there’s me.

I couldn’t actually tell you the last time my house was worthy of entertainment (other than for the summer ants who enjoy my kitchen annually), the last time I cooked joyfully or enthusiastically and not for speed and necessity  (which is a real shame as I actually love to cook), the last time I made anything by hand (which is also a shame as Halloween used to be my favourite time, a time to be creative and expressive), the last time I spent time with someone and didn’t look at my watch regularly because I have 38 other places to be;  The last time I cleaned pink mould off the grout in the shower.  The last time I didn’t sacrifice something important to me because something else was ‘more important’.

We are sold the dream that it is possible to have your cake and eat it – but, in reality, it is only possible if you stop off at Marks on the way home from work for a lemon drizzle and eat the crumbs off the plate left by your children as you wipe the worktop and shut the dishwasher with your foot.  For me anyway.  I can’t have it all – the career, the idyllic family life with a healthy dose of ‘me’ time.  It is just not possible. Maybe, if you have an even split of domesticity, extended family to help with the children, a large network of friends to share running around to all the clubs, the hobbies, the discos and the parties, then maybe there is more eating of cake and less crumbs.

But when you work all the time, you don’t meet the other parents often, so the network is small.  Extended family is different for everyone – if you have it, cherish it.  You are the lucky ones.  And as for domesticity, well, I suspect I’m not alone here but, the house, the kids and all that goes with it is still primarily the main concern of the female – not in all cases, I know this.  I also know that I have created my own cake-eating monster here by creating the allusion of being a crappier version of Nigella Lawson some 15 years ago when I met me partner, who was the very embodiment of a workaholic.  But a version of Nigella that was good enough to eat cake with…and now? Well now I am more desperate housewife, scooshing bleach on a toilet and promising myself that I’ll see to that mould in the shower once I’ve cooked dinner and done some work…

And something has to give.  The illusion that we create, that I have created.  It is not sustainable.  We cover the reality so often of just how hard it is to be everything to everyone (I know how dramatic this sounds – I am not everything to anyone really.  But I do my best for the 6 people in my life who I share blood with and love fiercely).  But we don’t share with everyone how difficult it is.  We smile and relish an escape from reality.   But sometimes the reality seems to be that everyone else is coping with the things you are not;  other people don’t have the life you have;  some people tell you “I don’t know how you do it, I couldn’t work full time” when, well you do, and you joke laugh that “ha, you should see my washing pile” while dying a little inside.   Some people tell you that their men do all the cooking/ironing/ kids activities, that they spilt everything in the house, and I think (100% genuinely) “that’s lovely” while silently knowing that my partner will put in 70 hours this week and I’ll just be happy if he doesn’t fall asleep at the wheel coming home to me.  Sometimes, the reality is that you see friends become ‘old friends’ because you couldn’t ever return their evening of being a host, the afternoon of having everyone round for coffee and cake with all the kids, and you know that you can’t possibly accept another invitation when you haven’t had your turn.  Because your partner has worked 70 hours this week and Friday night on the couch looms invitingly, and not handing him a hoover nozzle,  while shrieking hysterically about the time, about the pink mould and the fact that I forgot to get tonic, when he walks in the door.  All to create the illusion of the woman who can have it all.

And over the last month or so, I have accepted that I can’t have it all.  And something did have to give.  It’s just that I’ve realised it is not one thing, but a little bit of everything.  It is my smile being a little less full around the edges;  spending less time – real time, not lip-service – to the people I truly and whole-heartedly love;   my friendships being a little less of a presence and more of a promise for the future;  my house being a little (a lot) more of a Channel 4 documentary; my secrecy, as my children become regular witnesses of silent, stressed tears blobbing onto work surfaces and steering wheels; my passion for a job I love; my life.  I have effectively skimmed out of every piggy bank in my house, left everybody short-changed then realised that I still don’t have enough for what I needed in the first place.

piggy-bank

So, as I fed my children their dinner out of tin trays in the back seat of the car tonight as I drove them to basketball having come home from work late (which they loved and I told them it was just like being on an aeroplane), I realised just how extremely grateful for the people in my life who accept, without words, the lack of invitation, the lack of communication for large periods, the mood swings , accompanied by intermittent wailing, amateur dramatics and lightbulb moments of running off with the circus and learning a new skill while travelling the world in a caravan (caravans and travelling seemed glamorous in ‘Riders’…) The people who accept my reality.

And for the realisation that reality is always better than illusion.  Illusion is a trick and, once you know how it was done, never seems just quite as special.  Surviving reality sometimes is a much cleverer trick.

illusion-lady

Princess Syndrome

If I was going to be controversial and isolate myself from the few people who genuinely enjoy reading what I write about, then this, this could be the very blog to do it.

I want to talk about princesses. I debated whether or not the word should be given a capital ‘P’…but lower case.  Definitely lower case.   It has occurred to me that princesses are no longer a thing of fairy tales and fantasies.  Princesses now walk among us every day: at school, at work, in Top Shop changing room…literally everywhere.  And I don’t remember it being like that 20 years ago.  The only princesses I remember 20 years ago were Lady Diana and Princess Anne.  And they certainly didn’t walk among us.  Even Disney princesses weren’t really a ‘thing’.  But now?  Now everyone is a fucking princess.   Not like Princess Diana or Princess Anne though.   No.  Modern day ‘princesses’ would have kicked them out of the princess society for wearing floral smocks and jodhpurs, and for driving a mini metro, regardless of their credentials.

lady-di

For the people who know me fairly well, they will know that I regularly refer to ‘Princess Syndrome’ (I’m copywriting and patenting it) . The belief that they don’t have to play by the rules because they are beautiful; special; different; gifted.   I just don’t know when it started.  I don’t ever remember my mum referring to me as a princess.  I was encouraged to get dirty, ride bikes in jeans, skin my knees in roller skates and dig up worms with my hands.  Dresses of taffeta and frills were a rare occurrence for Christmas parties and family gatherings. When I had my own daughter 18 years ago, she was never my Princess.  She didn’t wear a dress until she was 1 – life was too short to force little legs into tights and I was 22 and definitely not displaying any sort of Queen-like,mother-of-a-princess behaviour.  If I or my daughter had been a princess though, we would have been my very favourite one in the whole world:  The Little Princess (Only ever to be uttered in the wonderfully northern accent of Jane Horrocks).

little-princess-2

But I am faced with it daily now.  And Something I saw the other day posted by a young person I know forced an involuntary sound of despair out of my mouth:

“My parents treated me like a princess my whole life, you think I’m expecting less from a man?”

So, this could be empowering. But I don’t see it like that – and I have thought a lot about Princesses over the last couple of years.  And it is not the real, living breathing princesses that girls are brought up believing they could be  – nobody really wants to be Kate Middleton, travelling the world, silently supportive of her husband, doing as she’s told by her immortal queen and the world press.  Pippa?  Pippa yes.  Kate, no.

micahel-of-kent

So who do we refer to when we tell our girls that they are princesses?  The beautiful creations of Disney, with their bouncy blow-drys, perfectly clear skin, 18 inch waists and tuneful voices? Yes, I think that is exactly who we refer to.  Has anyone in the history of the world ever clutched their chest at the sight of a beautiful young woman dressed for their wedding day, held their breath and tearfully declared “You are just as beautiful as Princess Michael of Kent”? Hmmmm.  What about Cinderella? Belle?  Snow White…?

But here’s the thing.  Why do we tell them that they are princesses?   What are we actually telling them?  That they are beautiful; that they are special; that they deserve the best; that they sre entitled; they are better than other girls because they are a princess? Yes, it can be empowering.  But also it can be limiting.  Girls absolutely should believe that they are deserving, that they are worthy of the very best.  But they also should believe that they are in control of their own success, their own destiny, regardless of appearance or privilege.

And I have an issue with fairy tale princesses.  They are just so predictably weak.  Almost always they require some sort of rescue by a man, who is both devastatingly handsome and in a position of power.  A man to break a spell, a charm, a mishap that the little, tiny-brained princess couldn’t see the danger in for herself.  Oh please.  In the real world, while Snow White is sleeping, the football is on Sky Sports and the kids are eating jam out a jar for their dinner.  He’ll give her a kiss when he feels frisky, she’ll wake up on high alert and poised to perform, while wondering how she is going to get that fucking jam off the ceiling.

Not only are princesses weak, they are defined by their beauty, as if that is the most important quality there is. As if Rapunzel would have been rescued by the ‘handsome prince’ had she heaved her giant blonde fishtail over the tower walls, only to reveal a terrible dose of acne, glasses and a flat chest. Why should our girls be defined by societies perceptions of beauty as a tool for success and achievement?  And, worse than that, as a reason to look down on their sisters who don’t possess the stereotypical good looks of Disney.   Why are we teaching them that their ‘prince’ will only come if they are perfectly coiffed and prom-ready 24/7?

Why are we teaching them that they need a handsome prince at all?         handsome-prince

Because they are princesses.  And princesses hold no power without a prince.  And this is the fundamental mistake with Princess Syndrome.  Have you ever noticed who the most powerful characters in fairy tales are?  The women.  Always the women.  The Queens; the witches; the step-mothers.  Power and magic.  Too powerful, too clever and too mystical for the Kings, the princes, the wizards – the queens and witches reign.  The Queens are often presented as being beautiful…but old and jealous of the youthful and more beautiful princesses, which makes them bitter and ugly at heart.  No mention of how every man in the Kingdom seemed suddenly interested in fetching berries for the bouncy blonde with the bee-stung lips, while she mends your trousers on the spindle…

evil queen.jpg

But I digress.  Power.  The queens and witches in fairy tales were always my favourite characters.  I could never form any sort of attachment to the hapless princesses (or their silly fathers for making deals with witches over stealing cabbages without first discussing it with their  wives).  They always seemed so transparent to me. I wanted to know the back story of the witches; of the ‘wicked queens’.  Who drove them to wickedness? What happened to them?  Did they graduate with first class Bio-medical Chemistry degrees but they had warts and a big nose so success wasn’t an option?  Because chemistry seems like a more valuable virtue than identifying a pea under 20 mattresses and 20 eider-downs…

witch

But if you look at the history of a lot of the Disney princesses, they are often a softened version of very Grimm and gory tales of woe and of male empowerment and betrayal.  Take ‘Maleficent’ for example.   In the earliest versions of 17th Century ‘Snow White’ the queen is not a villain but, in fact, a queen betrayed by her husband, who leaves her for the younger (and therefore more beautiful) Talia.  ‘Petty’ jealousy and vanity is the reason for her cruelty; In later versions, bitterness ensued by old age and replacement by youth and beauty in the guise of princesses are recurring themes.  But when Angelina Jolie took on the role in 2014, her beauty (and ability to wear rubber while still gaining the film a child-friendly rating), her poise and grace provided a different back story; A story of a misunderstood guardian, betrayal by her love in favour of power and the literal clipping of her wings. But it is the wronged woman; the clipped, yet resourceful, woman, who defies her fate, saves the princess and lives happily ever after without her prince.  The King and the Prince conspired and lied, but she survived with her dignity and regained her power and identity.

maleficent

And we could all learn a lot from Maleficent (not least how to make Halloween fetish-season). Especially the Aurora’s of this world.  Why would you be Aurora when you could be Maleficent?  Why would you be Anna when you could be Elsa? Powerful, magical and with no desire to marry the first man who finishes your…sandwiches (that’s what I was gonna say!)

And what about our boys?  How are our boys ever meant to live up to the fairy tale expectations of the princes, who will rescue beautiful damsels in distress and promise to treat them like princesses all their lives? Don’t we want to raise our boys to believe that women are their equals, that women are strong and powerful and independent and that they should ALWAYS look beyond the exterior, encouraging and supporting them to achieve their own success?

But times are changing for princesses in the world of fairy tales and Disney. No longer is the depiction of strong, powerful women such an ugly negative trait.  So it is time to change the perception of princesses for the future generation of girls.  Why be a princess, who requires marriage and the power of someone else to validate who you are as a person, give you what you think you deserve out of life, when you can be a Queen, holding all the power, being in control of your destiny, your own kingdom and answerable to no-one.

I’ll always hold a special place in my heart for Snow White, who was diverse, kind and accepting, but I’ll always be a little pissed off that she allowed the men, who had been shunned by every other human in society until she came along, to treat her like their own personal slave.  In her favour though is her resourcefulness to convince forest creatures to help her clean. What a gal. I can’t pay people who love me to help clean a toilet, so the fact that she got Bambi, Thumper and co to hang out a washing is testament to her wavering power.  The unfortunate incident of her being duped by an apple on their watch, however, suggests that maybe they weren’t as psyched about it as she thought.

Don’t raise princesses, raise Queens.  Not all princesses become Queens.  And nobody messes with a queen.

crownCrown.jpg

The Sound of Silence

This blog has taken me a while to write. I have had so little to say for a while now, feeling unable to dig deep down into the darkness of my soul to retrieve a necessary voice for any occasion.  Because we do have that don’t we?  We have our polite “hellos” with the faces we see on our routine journeys every day – people we don’t know but feel, after some time, that we do on some level.  We get to know their dogs that they walk at the same time every morning, their children that they are taking to school and nursery, their work patterns, their moods, their football preferences. We gauge our own time by them.  Those people we encounter daily, from passing them in the car to seeing them at the bus stop,  they become quite significant in our own routines; We have our varying degrees of familiarity in the workplace, ranging from polite chat to raucous laughter and everything in between; we have the various roles of friendships – with some friends our role is to listen and soothe, with others it is to talk;  then there is the complexity of family relationships and the familiarity this brings, the allowance to ‘be yourself’ (if you’re lucky).  We have voices for them all, few of them the same. A simple “hello” or “good morning” may be all that is required.  But sometimes that seems difficult.  You try and say it but it comes out so choked and painful that you might as well have lit a flair

I am never sure where it starts or why, but I have come to recognise the signs of gathering clouds and have grown faintly aware of a disconnection between my brain and my mouth as I struggle to contribute to conversations.  What happens on the journey through my nasal canal to the voice of Jen? Storms are coming.  Evacuate. And I am so very aware of the silence – in my head and in the room.

I sometimes think that this recognition is progress.  I don’t have the clouds I used to when I was younger.  For a long time in my life there was only one season (and it was never summer). Now it’s definitely more “sunshine with a chance of showers.”  But, although it is not the constant low-cloud of my youth, when the clouds come, it is Cumulonimbus.

dark-clouds

But hey, I’m from the West of Scotland – I can live without sunshine and embrace the weather.  What I cannot live without though is my voice. I talk.  It is what I do – whether it be on a keyboard, to strangers in random queues, workmates, family, friends, animals.  I never stop talking.  I fill every silence.  I even talk in my sleep.  So when the silence comes, it is audible.

And this is when the clouds gather.  When I become so painfully aware that the silence is too loud.  I wrack my brain for a contribution about my weekend, some sharp witty comment about something mundane, but nothing comes.  I literally have no words.  And I feel so empty; I feel like someone has scooped all of me out with a spoon, like an avocado husk but without even the stone heart, just nothing at all; an empty shell.  I always think about a Tom Petty video I saw when I was young, where they cut up and ate Alice in Wonderland while she is still alive but made of sponge cake  (it disturbed me deeply).  But it always comes back to me when my voice is gone.  The image of the frustrated Alice lying down, drumming her fingers on the floor as Tom and his Heartbreakers  cut into her and she can do nothing about it but watch them and wait for it to end. (I haven’t watched this video in a long time, apologies if my memories are skewed…)

tom-petty

So, like Alice, I wait for it to end.  And (luckily for me – I know) it does.  It becomes less exhausting trying to find the words from somewhere; I find myself looking less at the ceiling trying to find the words that must surely be floating up there somewhere or less at my feet where eyes and words don’t live.  I feel connected again.  I unconsciously and naturally make a joke, share a mundanity about my weekend. I feel the return of the stone to the husk.

Sometimes these rays of light mark a change of season; sometimes they are a happy mistake in the forecast and to be enjoyed in the moment for what they are.  I remember too many years ago when I worked in an office in the city centre and one of my colleagues telling me a story that has stuck with me.  I was around 19 or 20, she was 25 and going through an awful divorce having married her childhood sweetheart at 18.  She told me that, prior to the separation, she was so desperately unhappy, lost and living with an emotionally degrading and abusive husband.  She had been thoroughly scooped dry.  She drove the same route to work every day and every single day cried her heart out, from the minute she left the house, to the minute she arrived at work, where she gathered herself, applied her make up and found her voice for the day.  Every single day, she sat at a red light opposite the same woman in her car.  And, after a while, she became aware that the woman was offering her recognition through the windscreen: a smile, a concerned tilt of the head, which led in time to the mouthing of “are you ok”, which eventually led to a daily exchange as they passed each other with their windows down.  After months of this, the woman wasn’t there one morning.  She was devastated.  She realised that this stranger at a red light was her one source of compassion and understanding.  After a week, the woman was back and this time, mutual concern was exchanged, along with phone numbers, through an open window on the opposite journeys to work.  They became so important to each other for years to come.  She left, she got divorced and met the true love of her life.  And the silence did that.  For so long, they had a silent understanding.  And it was more important than any of the other voices.

So my voice is returning. My voice for the outside world is at least being heard.  But until I am caught singing on the way to work by the white BMW 3 series in Myrtle Avenue at 8:23am, or completely lose myself to the Vaccines in the shower, I know the clouds are lurking.  I will always be a woman at a red light, it just varies what direction I am going in.

red-light

 

Hector Dougan (the Wonder Hamster)

I appreciate that the majority of people I know (and don’t know) will roll their eyes and give this blog a miss.  It is, after all, about a hamster.

But Hector Dougan the Wonder Hamster became much more than that to us.

Two years ago, my 16 year old was broken in many ways.  She couldn’t cope with school, with peers, with life, with her emotions and we struggled to cope as a family.  We were all individually and separately limping along amidst the sadness and disparity that was our family life, all silently un-coping.

And then one day, Hector found us.

It had been a bad day.  Arran had, after months of me nagging her, joined my Taekwon Do club.  It was transformative – she fitted; she succeeded; she smiled.  Then one day, it didn’t work.  It should have been a happy day, celebrating medal wins and companionship.  But she couldn’t go in; she couldn’t  hold it together; she wobbled; she cried; she panicked. She broke.

She wailed like the lone survivor of a freak accident, full of shock and doubling inexplicable pain all the way home, while me and her brothers  silently communicated via the rear-view mirror.  Transformative was short-lived. I was helpless and hopeless once again.

And then Hector found us.

Cutie

We stopped at the local pet shop to pick up some straw on the way home – my youngest son (5 at the time) came into the tiny shop while the other two sat right outside the door in the car.  We didn’t see him, but he saw us and knew we were his.  We were aware of a noise coming from the back corner of the shop and, as I wandered off to investigate, I found him.  He was the weirdest looking hamster I had ever seen.  He was hanging from the roof of his cage, quacking like a duck and gazing right into my soul.  My son joined me at my side and we just stared at this little creature, transfixed and temporarily soothed by his presence.

I walked away.  I could not, under any circumstances, take a(nother) pet home on a whim.  But I walked back again and repeated the process several times before I heard myself say to my son (who had not moved a muscle since he had laid eyes on this hanging, quacking soul-gazer) “Will we take him home? Go and get your brother and sister out the car.” I knew (when my daughter stood sobbing in the pet shop as we introduced her to our new dysfunctional family member) that this was  good decision.

And so, Hector Dougan the Wonder Hamster joined the family (My youngest son insisted ‘Dougan’ be his last name as it made him sound important). And, despite the fact that I was in the hamster-sized dog house for a week (I remember uttering the words to someone “I think my relationship might be over because I bought a hamster”) he really was much more than any of us were expecting.

To put it into context, I am an animal nut.  What we really want is a dog but it’s just not possible.  I’d fill my house and garden with waifs and strays if I could and the thought of a wee animal being bought in a shop and not given a good home keeps me awake at night.  So I take them home to ‘save’ them.  But I think now that Hector saved us in a lot of ways.

My other half, having lost his shit at the appearance of a plastic townhouse with tubes and tunnels, midnight mileage on a squeaky wheel and a wooden hamster-sized swing park (yep), very quickly softened.  And, before long, he was baby-talking to a black and white ball of fur and regularly using the expression “are you coming to your dad wee man?” when Hector sensed his presence and came out to see him.

My daughter, when at her darkest, would take his house upstairs and he would soothe her sadness and do all manner of cute and adorable dysfunctional hamster stuff that they agreed would be just between them.  I would lie in bed and hear her talking to him through strangled tears.  And then I’d hear a smile in her voice.

HectorD

He was especially gentle and careful with the boys as they hand fed him, and allowed them to trust him as he trusted them. They knew he would never bite them and he knew they would never mistreat him.  They were responsible, they learned what he liked and didn’t like and, together, they all worked it out.

He filled silences on hard days.  When the lines of communication were closed once the children were asleep, that’s when he made the most noise  – so much noise – until he was lifted onto my lap and crawled between me and Alan on the couch, bridging the gap that, at times, seemed unreachable for us.

And, as we said goodbye to our beloved little hamster this week, I realised that we have a lot to thank Hector Dougan for.  He was not simply a nocturnal little rodent with a short life-expectancy.  He was a sentient and astute little member of our family whose presence made a real difference for 2 years in a way that I’m actually not sure a dog could have done. He represented something different for each of us,  all remembering the time that he entered our lives and how fragmented our lives were back then. 

He unified my 3 children when he came into the family, gave them a common interest, and he unified them again in grief as they supported and cared for each other compassionately when he died.

He convinced my daughter to be gentle, to let go of anger and to love and  – most importantly – that love and trust is rewarded.

My partner cried openly at the death of our wee hamster, in front of me in private as we lifted his wee body out of his bed and placed him in a box, and in front of the children as we buried him.  Hector allowed my children to see that it is ok for a man to show emotion, it is ok to be sad and it is absolutely ok for big boys to cry (I especially thank Hector for this).

He taught the boys that it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.

He gave my eldest son the chance to show me and his dad what a truly wonderful human being he is turning into by giving a heart-felt speech about Hector’s best qualities, as we covered his wee grave with earth and his words comforted us all.

He taught the boys that no living thing is replaceable.  Nobody wants a new hamster.  It won’t be Hector Dougan the Wonder Hamster. He was a one-off and it is ok to be sad that he is gone. 

When he arrived 2 years ago, we had hit rock bottom as a family. When we started to think back, we realised just how much had changed in the 2 years since his arrival.

The Mary Poppins of hamsters.  His work here is done.

Happy hector

 

Summer goals v Summer reality

​Being a teacher is lovely. There are lots of lovely things about it. The biggest perk, without a doubt, is the holidays. 6 and half weeks this year to spend during the ‘summer’ months of Scotland with my children.  Bliss.

But it has occurred to me that I start off the holidays with a huuuuuge list of things I’m going to do. Such as: 

I’m going to completely redecorate, clear out and transform my house;

I’m going to spend SO much time catching up with friends and family;

I’m going to get up before the kids each day and work out, returning to work after 6 weeks looking like Tanya ‘The Machine’ (I’m a little obsessed with Tanya…); 

I’m going to read 2 or 3 books a week; 

I’m going to write. (Arsey, I know, I know. There’s no way take less eye-rollingly arsey. I’ve tried). 

I’m going to make the most of every day. 

This year I have achieved not one item in my list. Not one. Instead, this is a summary of what I’ve done:

I’ve picked up wet/dirty/clean but worn for half an hour and wanted to change clothes off the floor and washed/folded/repeated process;

I’ve catered continously for bottomless stomachs and cries of “muuum, am I allowed something?” (Followed quickly by “Muuum, he ate the last one…”) 

I’ve refereed. Hourly. Expertly and corruptly. I’m Stephanie McMahon;

I’ve read 3 fairly average books;

I’ve written 1 fairly average blog (not including this mundanity);

I’ve outgrown every single zip and button fastening item of clothing I own (and not through muscle building. Through red wine, bread, pasta and anything else that wasn’t nailed down) For example, this morning, while everyone was asleep, I considered getting up to do some shredding with Jillian Michaels.  Instead I got a cup of tea, some Wispa bites and took them both back to bed while watching funny animal videos on the Internet…and it was awesome;

I’ve become a recluse and seen approximately 3 people in 6 weeks;

I’ve made a big mess clearing out bedrooms that I’ve given up trying to fix and the house is a bigger mess than it was before I started (predictably) and actually said last night “I can sort that during the October holidays”…

I’ve learned lots about my children. All 3 of them. They are changing and growing. They are wonderful. They are helpful. They are caring. They are grateful. They are responsible. (They are whiny. They are confrontational. They are irresponsible. They are ungrateful). 

So, one week left to read some books, catch up with some people, reintroduce myself to Shaun, Tanya, Jillian and step away from the red wine and Wispa bites. Well. Maybe.  Don’t want to be overly ambitious. 

BFFs (ish)

It has occurred to me over the past few years that friendship is a funny thing. And not in the amusing sense (especially if you are female) If you’re lucky, you’ll meet your forever best friend early on in life and you’re good to go for the next 70 odd years.  Bridesmaid, godparent, wingman…check, check and check.  Sometimes you meet a group of friends and you are all best friends forever – Although, in my (limited) experience and observations, there are often still pairings in the group (which is a bummer if the number is odd).

bridesmaids

 

But what if you haven’t met your best friend for life aged 5 on your first day of primary school?  What then?   Because I didn’t and I’ve always felt a little inferior because if it.

Social media celebrates every aspect of life, but in particular it celebrates the relationships people have with other people.  People publicly thank those closest to them for the Saturday night, for the support, for the gifts, for the laughter; For being their “best friend in the whole world.”  But at what point does someone earn this accolade and what effect does this decision, choosing this one person, have on life?  You don’t propose forever friendship the way you propose marriage, so when does it happen that two people just decide that, yup, we’re besties?

pals

Once it has been decided that two people are ‘best friends’, it is more binding than marriage – with no consideration or option of divorce.   In reality, the relationship between ‘best friends’ can be more influential and significant than the relationship between a couple, with staunch loyalty and unquestionable defence, the idea that you can fix anything and that you’re in everything together.  People seem to be more tolerant and supportive of their best friend than of their significant other – for example, if your best friend told you she was giving up her job to go travelling (who cares if she is 40 and has a mortgage to pay) you’d encourage this and defend this decision to anyone who dared question it.  You’ll miss her but you’ll be right there waiting for her when she returns.  Your partner suggests the same?  Shit. Storm.

I think I’ve pretty much spent my whole life trying to make a best friend.  It seemed essential (everyone else had one, I wanted one…) But this in itself is an entirely flawed approach and the reason I always had friends, but not a best friend just for me; forever.  By the time I arrived at the table, groups and friendships were established and I seemed to spend most of my childhood flitting from group to group, friends with everyone in the group but on the outskirts of the best friends within.  Don’t get me wrong, I realise there were many reasons for this (self-awareness is a curse) and I know I was a pain in the ass as a child (ahem…and as an adult at various points, buts that a different story…)  But what if I had been born 2 months later and been in a different year at school?  Not moved house aged 5 and gone to a different school?  Would I be siting here celebrating 35 years of friendship with one person like so many others I know?

friendship group

And what would it mean if I was. What would it mean for all the other friendships I’ve had throughout my life – would I still have had them?  Because, in my experience, groups of best friends or pairs of best friends don’t really need to make new friends, so often don’t make as many friendships with other people outside ‘the group’ and almost definitely never give other friendships priority.  But, and here’s the thing, what happens when a situation forces a change in the forever friendship?  What then?

Because things undoubtedly change.  LIFE happens.  And life doesn’t always go the same way for best friends and all the commonalities can become differences.  When one person falls in love, the dynamics of a friendship will change – the pair of best friends who were never seen apart will become tested as one half of the pair is left to watch the love story unfold, questioning their role;  the group of best friends becomes problematic for the person in love as the group will pull tighter together in their absence.  But, hopefully, after some initial licking of wounds, the friendship survives.  But what if you love someone your friends hate?  Or what if the someone you love hates your friends…?

I am generally in awe of people who have maintained these firm bonds of friendships through the years.  But I’ve realised lately, quite by accident, that I no longer crave what I once did.  Throughout my life, putting a label on a friendship was the kiss of death for me.  I would become jealous of other friends that came along, would get hurt when plans were made that didn’t include me and I would gradually withdraw, missing out on so much because of my own insecurities.

And in realising this, it has allowed me to realise all sorts of things about friendship (and myself).  Some friendships will just never stand the test of time.  Different paths will always be taken and there are so many reasons why friends drift.  But the important thing is that they happened in the first place.  When you have a baby, you might spend every waking minute with someone else in the same position as you (clueless and wondering what happened to your life…) The closest of friendships can be built at this time and new mums are often drawn to each other, sussing out who seems to be their level of ‘coping/not coping/afternoon drinking’. But, sadly, not all these friendships last. Maternity leave comes to an end, the children become little people of their own with their own interests and you realise that maybe you were always from very different backgrounds and on different paths. But you cherish that special time when you helped each other survive life with small children, when background, financial  status and hair and make up standards were happily immaterial.

Drifting from a friendship always happens for many reasons.  But before the internet, house phones and, latterly, mobile phones were all we had.  Drifting was inevitable after school.  Social media removes that option now and has, quite wonderfully for me, reunited me with so many people I knew when I was younger. But what is more wonderful still is when someone drifts into your life, or back into your life, without the internet.   And this is the case for the most significant friendships that I have (and have had).  We weren’t brought together because Facebook suggested them as someone I may know.  We were brought together – drifted to each other – because we were just meant to be in each others life.

And in the week where I’ve seen a women I love get married, and absorb the news that someone I spent more time with when I was younger than anyone probably knows about, shared a 100% plutonic relationship with, and loved with all my heart in my youth is at the end of his very cruel, unjust and short journey with cancer, well, I’ve thought a lot about friendship and fate. I’ve thought a lot about the term ‘best friend’ and all the times I’ve used it or heard it.  And I think actually that the term is limiting.  Some people go beyond being a ‘best friend’  Some people become family; part of you.  And that’s pretty cool.

84677-friends-friends

I’d like to say that every friendship will last forever but, with the best will in the world, sometimes the people you spend every waking minute will become strangers. Sometimes they will become enemies.  But they will all be memories and these are yours forever. Someone once told me I was “the most expendible person” they’d ever met. And I carried that wirh me for years, letting it define me. But more portant ly, letting it define my friendships. But not any more. Because memories are not expendible. 

So this is what I think. If you were single and you happened across someone that you liked, you’d ask them out, take a chance, go on a date and see what happens.  We don’t do this enough with friends.  How many times have you met someone and thought “They’re brilliant, I’d love to be their friend”? Do it.  Obviously, you don’t do this if you’re in a relationship but be more open in your friendships.  Make as many friends as possible.  You just don’t know where life will take you – or them; Don’t take time or friendship for granted.  Temporary or permanent, make it count; make memories that last a lifetime even if the friendship doesn’t. And make peace with yourself about the ones that didn’t last.  You’ll be a better friend if you do.

old friends

40

So, 6 months on from turning 40, there is a lot to muse.  I wasn’t dreading turning 40 at all.  30, yes -it was hideous and I felt it represented the end of my youth and the turning of the hourglass. But 40? No, 40 felt good.  I was in a better place at 40 than I was at 30.  More settled, more driven and more secure in who I was and where my life was going.   At 30, I was still so unsure of life.  I wanted more children (I had one); I wanted to feel fulfilled career-wise; I wanted security in my relationship.  At 30, everything was teetering, dependent on so many other people and factors that seemed outwith my control.

10 years on and everything feels different. I feel different.  But I have given it a lot of thought over the past six months and it has occurred to me that 40 is perhaps more significant that I originally thought.  40 is perhaps the most significant age there is.  The age that everyone uses as a benchmark for fertility, marriage and success; for beauty, for fashion and for social acceptability.  40 is possibly the only age that actually becomes a reason in itself for not doing something, not wearing something: Because you’re 40…

So, despite the fact that I found forty not something to fear, but something freeing to embrace, I have come to the conclusion that there are lots of things I have to accept now that I am 40.  And here they are:

  1. I will never be a bride.  I always just thought that at some point it would be my turn, that I would have that day.  As I got older, I realised that I would never have that day, but I started to think I might have an alternative day; I would compromise. A quiet, intimate day perhaps.  But still a day. Now, at 40 (and a half), I accept that I will never be a wife.  I will never wear the dress, squeeze my mum’s hand as the finishing touches are complete, or kiss my husband for the first time. I will always feel genuinely gleeful when someone I care about gets engaged because I truly love wedding chat, but I will always feel a pang of sadness that I will never have any of my own; no photos of my dad proudly giving me away and no opportunity to put my sister in peach taffeta…
  2. I will never look like anyone from a fitness DVD.  No matter how much Insanity, T25 or any other Shaun T affiliated daily sweat-fest I partake in , I will never look like Tania ‘The Machine’ Baron – despite the fact that she is, in fact, 42.  Why?  Because I like potatoes, gin and nan bread.
  3. I will never look as good as I did when I passionately despised how I looked.  Irony.
  4. Funerals of people you care about become more common than weddings of people you care about.
  5. I will always apologise for walking into rooms.  Perhaps not every day…but fairly regularly.  It is just who I am. And I will not apologise for who I am.  Sorry.
  6. I will always go out of my way to avoid having a conversation that I know will cause some degree of upset or confrontation, despite the fact that I know that putting it off or avoiding it until it is entirely unavoidable will cause more upset and confrontation.  I know this…and yet, I still avoid having conversations that will result in people being pissed off with me but, undoubtedly, they end up being even more pissed off with me because I avoid awkward conversations. (I accept that this makes me an idiot…)
  7.  I will spend my life overthinking everything.  I often seek people out days after an innocuous and irrelevant conversation because I’ve been awake for days thinking about something I said and how it could have been construed, misconstrued, or that I just realised I said something that I wished to take back.  I accept that people will always look at me like I am a lunatic as I have to remind them of the entire conversation (because it was so irrelevant that they have entirely forgotten about it) and I’ve made it a big issue by making an agonising point about it.
  8. I will reminisce rose-tintedly about the past.  I want to be friends with pretty much everyone I have ever met in the past 40 years and have a very sentimental outlook on life.  I always want to ‘put things right’ and struggle to cope with bad feelings and unfinished business.  I accept that this is juvenile and often results in me taking responsibility for things that are not always my fault but this is a choice I make and it helps me sleep at night. (Sometimes)
  9. See number 8…Secretly, I will allow things to knaw away at me and will cast things up years after the event, much to everyone’s confusion (including mine).  I accept that I will probably cause all sorts of hell when I get older by casting up everything I quietly swore to forgive in my first 40 years.
  10. I accept that I should never wear a mini skirt on a night out.  I am too aware of being 40…and, oh, how I wish I had more photographs of toned and tanned legs of my younger self in mini skirts and hot pants that I so self-consciously wore.  But I accept that, even though some of my 18 year olds daughters clothes might fit me and provide some secret entertainment on an afternoon when I’m home-alone and defying my age, a holographic mini skirt is not appropriate apparel any more. (This is not a general rule, just a Jen/Arran rule)
  11. I am starting to show definite signs of growing older.  I have thread veins, laughter lines, frown lines, ‘bleeding’ lips, a downward smile, a moustache, random whiskers, sad boobs and telling hands.  Old age is coming.
  12. I will never rub a pregnant tummy, breastfeed a new life and name another child.
  13. I will *sigh* never own a Sausage dog.
  14. I will never ever regret the day that I became a teacher.  Wherever and whenever my career ends, it was the most important decision I made as an adult.
  15. I will never be able to provide my children with the wonderful experience of childhood that my parents gave me.
  16. I will always feel like the stupidest person in every room I am in (because I usually am)
  17. Make up that makes you look amazing in a photograph often makes you look shit  (and a little frightening) in the flesh…decisions,  decisions, decisions…
  18. I am not going to get younger.  I am 40 and the only way is up…

turning 40

 

Things that I refuse to accept even though I’m 40:

  1. I will never be a bride.  I’ll just keep visiting my wonderful friend with the bridal shop and forcing myself into wedding dresses for fun, making wishes on eyelashes and working on channelling my inner Charles Xavier. Joan-Hickson_2062998i
  2. I will never look like anyone from a fitness DVD.  I’ll just keep doing my daily thing with my work bff and enjoy my potatoes, my gin and my nan bread in the knowledge that Tania ‘The Machine’ Baron wishes she remembered what potatoes tasted like.
  3. I should never wear a mini skirt on a night out.  Ha, watch this space.
  4. I will never own a Sausage dog.  Ha, watch this space.

I am 40.  And the only way is up.

 

tania-the-machine