Hurtling in to Childhood

Lately, when I look at my little boy, I can’t help but realise how fast we are hurtling away from baby-hood, and now even toddler-hood, on in to full-on childhood.

It’s in the way he looks. His face, suddenly so much more grown up, the trademark fine and curly baby hair now just a memory. His bottom more streamlined, without the added bulk of nappies. His limbs ever more gangly – not that he ever had much baby pudge, the wriggle-monster that he is. It’s also in the way he speaks. Vociferous from the outset, he was an early talker, and a clear one at that. But his sentences grow ever more complex and the strangers he approaches to share his stories with can’t help but comment on what a great conversationalist he is!

Most of all, though, it’s in the way he acts. Confident to run wide circles well away from me, hardly even checking back over his shoulder. He’ll ask for exactly what he wants in a restaurant or shop, adding the appropriate pleases and thank yous. I see the child in him when he intones “oh pleeeease” whenever he has been denied something he wants to do or have. It’s a stark contrast to the fist thumping tantrums that immediately followed such denials just mere months ago. Now the tantrums are the last resort, instead of the first.

I see other, older children when we’re out and about, and I see clues already of what our future might be like. At our local carnival this week, Thomas was still content mostly to run around and take it all in. But there was insistence at a turn of the miniature flying chairs. The beginnings of pester power. Every way we looked were slightly older children, begging their parents for a turn on the various stalls, and carting around the associated winnings. And i see these children all the time too. At the park. In the swimming pool. Even at work. Recently I’ve started to properly take them in. All of a sudden, I see the pathway in front of us illuminated a little better.

Ever since Thomas was born I’ve known, of course, that I would one day have not just a baby, but a child. Although there is so much focus on having a “baby”, they can’t stay babies forever. But leaving baby-hood behind is something that is hard to imagine when you’re pregnant or a new mum. It feels particularly bittersweet at the moment, of course, since we haven’t managed to have another “baby” and it looks increasingly unlikely that we ever will. But all of that aside, when I think about Thomas as the child he is becoming, my biggest reaction is terror.

I don’t know what I’m doing.

The last time I felt like this was immediately before Thomas was born, when I realised that they were going to let me take my baby home and I had absolutely no idea about what I was supposed to do.

It seems ridiculous, because I know this parenting thing is pretty organic in its development. We’re all up-skilling all the time, as each new challenge came along. And when I look at my record, even I have to concede that we haven’t done too badly. We’ve negotiated various hurdles from the early days, through mastering breastfeeding, on to weaning, then walking, talking and this growing independence. It seems daft to feel so unnerved now, but it’s that word that does it: independence.

Of course I want Thomas to grow and spread his wings, hopefully go on to achieve things that make him happy and fulfilled. I really want him to do that. But already, at the tender age of two, I’m afraid of this pulling away too. I’m afraid of the shift in our relationship, because knowing that it’s coming is akin to walking on unstable ground, never knowing quite when you may trip, stumble or fall.

This probably sounds self-indulgent and over-protective, but that’s not my intention. In fact it’s really the opposite. I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t want these changes to happen, but I am afraid of them too. Once upon a time all that Thomas needed for happiness was cuddles and breast milk. Things that were, for a long time, easy to provide. I’m afraid of not knowing how to support him as he grows up, and not knowing quite how to let him go to do the things he needs to do now that mummy cuddles and milk are no longer all he needs. It feels like more of a challenge than any of those we’ve so far encountered.

Only time, of course, will tell.

photo(32)

Squashing and Squeezing My Little Gruffalo

Thomas, like a lot of young children, is totally addicted to the kiddy-crack that is Julia Donaldson’s work. She has the rare and special talent of being able to create worlds with words that absorb young imaginations and help them flourish. And when paired with the illustrations of a host of talented artists, it’s an unbeatable formula. Thomas invariably picks at least one from our collection of her works each bedtime (current favourites being Monkey Puzzle, Room on the Broom, A Squash and a Squeeze and The Snail and the Whale). I adore the fact that he imagines himself as a Gruffalo, and can recite the words of that book, and it’s sequel, almost perfectly. He’s been captivated by the rhythm and rhyme of many of the books from a very young age, inserting the repeating clauses himself as we read aloud from almost the moment he began to talk.

That said, I must admit that I don’t love all of Donaldson’s work. Some of the tales are harder to read aloud than others, and some simply miss the mark for me. However, when the touring Seven Stories exhibition “A Squash and a Squeeze: Sharing Stories with Julia Donaldson” came to Chatham Historic Dockyard Kent, it seemed like a no-brainer that we would go. As it turned out, though, we actually didn’t make it until the weekend the exhibition closed, which means in many ways I’m a bit late with this post! (The good news, however, is that the exhibition is due to open in Bradford next week, running until November).

It didn’t disappoint. Not only was it awash with original illustrations from all of her most well known works, along with storyboards and ideas, fascinating little facts and historic agents’ letters – which all created plenty of interest fro Ian and I – it was also incredibly well thought out with regards to the target children’s audience. There was large scale artwork reproduced on every wall. The old lady’s house from A Squash and a Squeeze, along with large stuffed animals for the children to take in and push out, was standing in one corner. There were reading areas, with well thumbed copies of many books, and interactive exhibits inviting children, for example, to “lift the flap” to find Tiddler and his friends. As part of the exhibition there were also story-telling sessions with associated craft activities.

Best of all, however, we a dressing up area and a backdrop of the deep dark wood. Thomas immediately homed in on this area and dragged out a Gruffalo costume to wear. He loved it so much that we couldn’t easily persuade him out of it, but staff assured us it was fine for him to continue to wear it around the rest of the exhibition. I get the impression that the area is used by school groups to stage stories – and Thomas certainly had a good go at roping me in to be the mouse! It definitely fired up his imagination anew!

IMG_3244

IMG_3251

IMG_3252

IMG_3254

IMG_3258

IMG_3268

Despite the fact that the exhibition in Kent has now closed, I wanted to share my review in part to share these pictures of my cheeky Gruffalo, but also to encourage anyone living near enough to its next location to consider dropping in. We paid for our own tickets to go, and I haven’t been asked to write a review or compensated in any way – it was just a really good day out. (And we may have ended up buying a half price Gruffalo outfit in Sainsbury’s on the way home!)

Anniversary, Mk IV

Yesterday was our fourth wedding anniversary.

On the one hand, I can’t believe it’s been four years since our wedding day. Sometimes it feels as though it were yesterday, with my memories still crisp and fresh.

36215_405102273524_564978524_4642869_1459777_n

162789_10150103879835189_683550188_7888171_6435132_n

34587_405107293524_564978524_4642991_6563220_n

On the other hand, I cannot believe that it’s only been four years. So much has happened in that time including moving out of London, buying our current house, pregnancy and parenthood, and, most recently, infertility. In a lot of ways it has been four of the easiest years of my life, certainly in terms of my own health. But these most recent months have definitely been a challenge too, and it’s helped me realise that we’re definitely stronger together.

Today we attended a review at our fertility clinic, following our recent failed cycle. One of the remarks our ever-patient consultant made as we weighed up different options, was that we must be careful not to let this destroy what we already have. I’ve seen, through close personal experience, exactly how infertility can do that. But I’m confident in saying that it really isn’t likely to happen to us. We’re a united team. Two people who are better as one. As nauseating as it may be, I really do love my husband just as much, if not more, than I did on our wedding day. Our love is easy, comfortable like a well worn shoe that I can’t wait to slip in to each day. But at the same time, our relationship continues to grow and change in fresh ways. I simply cannot imagine being without him, through rough and smooth, until we become grey, wrinkled and immobile. As much as I want another baby, I still want our family of three much more.

We both took the day off work yesterday, and with Thomas in nursery, spent the day re-visiting our former childless life. We took the train up to London, took a spin on the London Eye (for the first time in 10 years for both of us)

IMG_3486

IMG_3489

IMG_3496

IMG_3504

IMG_3517

IMG_3524

IMG_3528

IMG_3530

IMG_3540

IMG_3542

We then enjoyed a stroll along the Southbank to the Tate Modern, taking in a bubble performer and sand artist.

IMG_3553

IMG_3575

We crossed the river to St Paul’s and had lunch in a pub close to our wedding venue – the same pub in which we whiled away the afternoon of our first full day of marriage, drinking Prosecco and re-living our favourite moments from the day before. This time we enjoyed a very drinkable sparkling Sauvingnon and delicious burgers, before wandering back – past where we married – with a stop for ice cream and then Pimms.

IMG_3561

IMG_3563

IMG_3567

 

It was nothing show-stopping, but it was a fantastic day – helped, of course, by the gorgeous weather.

IMG_3549

So, here’s to the next four years – and many more thereafter. After all, my parents celebrate their Ruby wedding this very weekend – married thirty-six years before us, in the very same place. It may sound like a lot to live up to. But I don’t think so. We’re in for the long haul, and nothing much else has ever felt so right.

Recipe: Malteser Cupcakes

Malteser Cupcakes close up

It may be a slightly ironic hobby for a type one diabetic, but I’ve always loved to bake. I love the process as much as eating the results. There is something enormously therapeutic about the manipulation of raw ingredients in to aesthetically pleasing finished products. So baking is one of the things I’ve recently promised myself to make more time for. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to pledge to myself to stop buying any pre-made baked items, but instead to spend time baking anything that I want to eat, and baking something at least once a week. Three weeks in to this pledge, which is as much about creating a bit of time to myself as anything else, I’m doing really well!

I don’t usually blog recipes. In fact, I’m almost certain this is my first, but it’s one that I had to share after whipping it up this week when charged with providing cake for a work colleagues birthday.

There is something about those little malty chocolate balls that everyone seems to love – my colleagues definitely included. So straight away I knew I wanted to use a Malteser theme for the birthday cake. The only problem was with transporting a full size cake in to work, whilst also juggling Thomas on the nursery run, was going to be a challenge. I knew that cupcakes would be much easier. So I set about adapting a Malteser cake recipe – from the Hummingbird Bakery – in to one I could use for cupcakes. This is the end result. I may be biased, but they are really good. And judging by the empty box, my work mates agreed!

Malteser Cupcakes

For the cakes

150ml Sunflower oil – using oil rather than a solid fat makes for a much lighter cake
75ml whole milk
75ml buttermilkcan be tricky to find (Waitrose sell the St Ivel brand, find it near the cream) so you can just use extra milk, or plain yogurt
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
215g plain white flour
25g cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
310g caster sugar
40g Ovaltine or Horlicks powder
100ml boiling water

1. Preheat oven to 140 degrees centigrade

2. Beat together the oil, milk, buttermilk and vanilla extract. Then add the egg and whisk again.

3. In a separate bowl, mix the flour, cocoa powder and baking powder. Then mix in the sugar.

4. Mix the Ovaltine or Horlicks with the boiling water (add a little water to the powder at a time, and stir well).

4. Add the dry ingredients to the bowl of wet ingredients a little at a time and mix well. A rubber spatula works well here. After each addition of dry ingredients, add a little of the Ovaltine mixture too. Continue adding until all the ingredients are combined.

5. Divide the mixture evenly between 12-16 cupcake cases – depending on size. You need to fill them about 3/4 full

6. Place in the oven. In my very efficient fan oven, they took about 25 minutes to cook, with one turn at about 11 minutes. In the last five minutes they were checked every 1-2 minutes. This is key as the cakes can easily overcook and become dry. It’s important not to cook them at a higher temperature as this will lead to them becoming more dry around the edges, and also gives cupcakes that “peaky” look. They should spring back lightly when they are done. Take them out of the oven and leave for a few minutes to firm, before transferring to a wire rack.

For the topping

200g chocolate – it’s up to you what you use. For a richer topping, use dark 70% cocoa solids. For a lighter result, try milk. or you could do half and half
225ml double cream
150g Ovaltine or Horlicks
50g full fat cream cheese
50g icing sugar
Maltesers to decorate

1. Melt the chocolate (either in a bowl set over simmering water, or in the microwave)

2. Whip the cream until it forms soft peaks (use an electric whisk). Whip in the Ovaltine powder.

3. In a separate bowl, mix the cheese with the icing sugar. Be careful not to overbeat. Add the chocolate to the bowl.

4. Add the cream to the cheese and chocolate mixture a bit at a time, still being careful not to overbeat.

5. Pipe on to the cupcakes and add Maltesers for decoration.

more malteser cupcakes

And then: Enjoy!

Bedtime Stories

I’m not, and never have been a heavily routine-led parent. The structure of our days can vary pretty widely, but the one exception is bedtime. We started implementing a “bedtime routine” when Thomas was just a few months old. That may have seen us bathing him at 10pm, since that was the time he naturally settled and we wanted him to learn to associate a bath with bedtime, but the basic structure hasn’t varied all that much, even if the timings have.

Reading books has been a part of the process since he was about six months old. Back then, he was still breast-fed to sleep, but we always made time to look at a book first. Looking at picture and textured books gradually gave way to reading a story. Then one story became two. Then the bedtime feed shifted to being before bath time, and suddenly it was a free-for-all with book after book being requested. “One more” was probably Thomas’s first two-word sentence! I invariably gave in, because I loved – and still do – the fact that Thomas enjoys books and stories so much. I find the request to read almost impossible to deny.

Up until we took the side off his cot, stories were read in the glider chair in Thomas’s room, with him snuggled on our lap. Ian and I take it in turns (although he has been through phases of requesting Daddy every night, and currently, if asked, it’s always “Mummy’s turn to read tonight”) and we’ve finally settled on the reading of three books. This is always stated firmly, with the three books picked out before we begin. Of course, it’s not quite that simple though, and we play a game where Thomas gets away with requesting “a short one” which is always taken from a small selection of short picture books. Sometimes Thomas insists on “reading” this book himself whilst giving us another that we must read to ourselves. Since he knows a surprising number of books off by heart, the casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that he truly was reading to himself!

Now that we’ve taken the side off the cot, story time takes place sitting on the bed. And yes, he really does sleep with all those trains in his bed. We’d hoped when the side came off the cot that he may start to line them up on the floor next to him, but when we tried, an epic meltdown ensued. He carefully audits his trains before sleep, and woe betide us if any are missing!

IMG_3396

IMG_3398

IMG_3399

IMG_3406

IMG_3407

IMG_3416

IMG_3420

IMG_3422

IMG_3423

Bedtime story time is such a short, simple part of each day, but it’s a part that never, ever varies no matter what else we’ve been up to. And I’m so happy that Thomas won’t accept going to bed without his stories. It’s one of those ordinary moments that I treasure, and will surely miss when he is old enough to read his books by himself, and no longer needs Mummy or Daddy to share them. I hope, of course, that he might want us to share this moment long beyond when he is capable of doing without us!

 

mummy daddy me

I Choose Hope

I’m struggling a bit with writing here at the moment. A writer’s block of sorts, but also a symptom of all my focus being overwhelmed by infertility, IVF and our failure to conceive. And much as I want to write about all those things, I feel a little cautious and a little stifled as a result of some of the thoughtless things that have been said to me in person. Deep down I’m afraid of opening myself up to more of the same here. In the past week I’ve been told that “I don’t seem that upset”, which is perhaps the most hurtful thing I’ve heard so far. As if anyone else has any right to judge how I *should* be feeling, when they haven’t been anywhere near being in my shoes. And I detest the assumption that they know just how I’m feeling based purely on what I choose to show. It may be true that I’ve managed to retain a composed public face, but that says nothing of how I’m feeling under the surface. I could go on, but it’s not what I really want to write about.

I’ve also been told this week that I need to stop putting my life on hold. This is something that I freely acknowledge that, at times, I have been doing for the last two years or so, and have even questioned the sense of numerous times myself. Despite that, and whilst the comment is no where near as hurtful as the one above, I still find myself hating it and responding, if only internally, with the question “why?”. I know the answers: because it’s not fair on myself, or my husband and son, to deny us opportunities to do things; Because we might be waiting for something that will never happen and I may regret what we forgo in the meantime.

But I just can’t quite shake the idea of the possibility that I might still fall pregnant.

Perhaps in order to understand this, you need to know more about me. You need to appreciate the fact that I’m the kind of person who never gives up without a very big fight, if at all. I’m known for my tenacity and remembered for saying that if you tell me that I can’t do something, I’ll try twice as hard just to prove you wrong. In fact, I’ve done just that more than once in my life. Some of the obstacles I’ve faced, and overcome, aren’t relevant to this blog, nor things that I wish to keep dragging up, no matter how proud I am of my ultimate successes and big achievements. Suffice it to say that when it comes to something I want, or something I believe passionately in, I’m determined and prepared to do whatever it takes.

Maybe this is one of the reasons that infertility is so difficult for me. It isn’t something that can be overcome by hard work alone. It’s all almost entirely out of my control. I can’t go further, climb higher or dig deeper in any sense but one: my resolve to not let it break me. Like so many things in life there are really only two options – give up or go on.

I know that I might be forgiven for giving up. We’ve tried for a long time and we’ve thrown much of what medical science can currently offer, along with more money that perhaps we should, at the problem. I know that no one would blame me if I simply walked away. In fact, I think plenty of people would applaud me for accepting the family we have and making my peace with what is to be.

But I can’t pick that option, no matter how sensible, or how laudable.

Instead, I choose hope.

I may not be able to influence what happens from here all that much. And I have begun to get my head around the fact that we will most likely only have Thomas. I will probably not get to experience another pregnancy, nor that first rush of love for a person that we have created together. Baby steps towards accepting that, however, doesn’t mean that I’m ready to give up entirely.

I’m still able to hope that we may have a different outcome. Whether that’s through a miracle natural conception, or another assisted conception cycle that somehow brings us a different outcome – the possibilities are still there. If believing that makes me think twice about plans for this year and next, then so be it.

Whilst I have hope, I go on.

I choose hope. It just might still happen.

Fertility vs. Career: My Two Pence on Kirstie’s Latest Crusade

Like many other parents, I’ve been reading the reactions and debate prompted by the interview with Kirstie Allsopp in yesterday’s Telegraph with great interest. And whilst I neither passionately agreed not disagreed with many of the statements in the piece, I found myself, for the second time in 18 months feeling like she may have slightly missed the point.

To be fair to Kirstie, I’m not sure that these comments were ever supposed to be the focus of the interview, which was initially intended to promote an upcoming craft venture and began by discussing the death of her mother – which carried important messages in itself that have been largely ignored in the media storm that’s followed.

To be fairer still, her appearance on Newsnight, where her opinions were not subject to the direct sweep of an editor’s hand, she was able to clarify that women should “Do what you want, but be aware of the fertility window. Make your choices in an informed way. This has been a taboo topic. People have not discussed it.”

That is a statement that I can wholeheartedly agree with: The idea of informed choice (not so much the part about it not being discussed. Are there really many women who aren’t aware of the finite nature of female fertility?) And that statement contrasted sharply with the slightly prescriptive and didactic tone of her opinions as they were written in the Telegraph article.

You see, I don’t believe that there can be a “one size fits all” approach to when to have children, which was the first thing that struck me on reading it. Her thoughts seemed like a mass over-simplification. It seemed to me that there were too many assumptions being made. Such as the fact that finding a partner – the right partner – to have children with is easy. Many people simply aren’t ready to settle in to a relationship that, if children result from it, will be ongoing to a greater or lesser degree, until they are older and have matured more. Had “life experiences” or “found themselves”, use whatever cliches you will, but I know that I was a very different person at 28 to the one I was at 21.

Kirstie’s pathway also relies on the fact that all women have the kind of support from family that allows them to disregard some of the financial implications of having a family young – such as the cost of housing, whether rented or bought. Sadly that isn’t the case for vast swathes of the population.

And finally, there also seemed to be the massive assumption that starting a career as a thirty-something is any easier than conceiving as a thirty-something. For many people fertility hasn’t yet become as issue in their mid-thirties, and equally some people will establish careers successfully at this stage in their life. But we cannot ignore the fact that society is not set up to accept this “alternative” pathway, and for many women the barriers are huge either way. And this is why I think Kirstie is missing the point. The problem is not simply when women choose to have children. The issue is much bigger than that.

I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who has done exactly what Kirstie seemingly advises against. I spent over six years at University and subsequently established a successful professional career. Then I settled in to a relationship (and got married, though that is slightly beside the point) where I wanted to have children. For me, that urge did not arise until my late twenties, and had nothing to do with my career, and everything to do with simply not wanting children until then. So we bought a house together and then had a baby, at the age of 31. You could say it’s easy for me to disagree with Kirstie based on my circumstances alone.

But I’m not naive, I know that it doesn’t work out that way for everyone. And I’m also writing this from the perspective of someone who is knee-deep in infertility and all the heartache it brings – one of the very things we are supposedly being warned about. We’re the prime example that even if you start well before 35, the unexpected can happen. For us, that was Ian’s fertility “dropping off a cliff” at the age of 32. In short, we’re a prime example of just why a “one size fits all” approach won’t work. And for us, the very fact that I have a good career has allowed us to afford all of the expensive fertility treatment necessary to (attempt to) overcome our problem. (The bill now stands at around fifteen thousand pounds. Infertility is an expensive business.)

I’m both lucky and unlucky. Unlucky that we’ve been hit by infertility in the way that we have but so lucky that I managed to essentially “have it all” initially with both a career and family elements falling in to place. And it really is luck, as much as anything else. For the heart of the matter, the root of the problem, is the reluctance of society as a whole to accept, never mind support, anyone trying to do more than one thing at a time. Women are constantly derided for trying to do it all, warned they are foolish for putting career before family or lambasted for “only” wanting a family, yet often totally unsupported In the workplace if they try to combine both things.

I agree with Kirstie that, in general, fertility is the most immovable obstacle. We can’t overcome the hurdles that nature has placed with any amount of medical science. In an ideal world, it would be the priority. But for that to happen we need a societal shift. What is really missing is the support for women entering careers later in life and an end to pervading ageism. And what we really need is an end to the notion that family and career are mutually exclusive options. We need greater acceptance of flexible working options for both men and women. We need more affordable childcare options. And we need an end to the attitude that work and family can’t co-exist. We need to eradicate the fear – an the opinions and policies that drive it – that women instinctively feel for their careers when they begin to contemplate family.

So yes, I think Kirstie has missed the point. I don’t think the answer is to tell the daughters of our generation to focus on having babies first at the exclusion of all else. Nor do I think we need to remind them that they don’t have all the time in the world in which to have children, because I think that message is already being delivered loud and clear. I think the focus should be on changing the attitudes of all the children of our generation – both male and female – and our own attitudes at the same time. We need more help for everyone to live their life the way that is right for them, without having to make a choice about whether “family” or “career” dictates the way.

Right now, Kirstie’s suggestion might well be the best of all options, but that in itself isn’t good enough.