A Letter To… my mum by Jo Olney

 

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Mum (right), 1968
It’s been one year since The Muse launched and almost everyone I have mentioned the blog to has given the same reply… “You’ve got to feature your mum! Mother to seven women, SEVEN!”.

So, Mum, here goes…

A Letter to my mum

Dear Mum,

There’s nothing quite like treading your own path as a mother to make you reflect on your own dear mum. As you lay your head on your pillow only to hear the baby start up again, as you breastfeed whilst enjoying the spoils of norovirus, as you wipe another bum, another tear, another yoghurt splattered floor and think, my mum did all this – and she did it in days before dishwashers, iPhones, Ella’s Kitchen, disposable nappies and wipes (and yes, I know many people manage fine without these things, but I am not one). So first off, let me say thank you. When I think of all I do for my babes and think of what you did for us, THANK YOU! Lord knows it’s a largely thankless experience, but let it be known that I am SO thankful – for the birthing, the feeding, the clean clothes, the nursing, the teaching, the encouragement, the love.

In so many ways you set the bar high; you made our school dresses, you won every mothers’ race on sports day, you read to us every night even though you nodded off mid-story, you returned to work after raising us all and caring for your mum and you can turn out a mean roast for 20 people at the drop of a hat.

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Mum with six of us, that’s me at the bottom.
But do you know one of the things I am most thankful for? It’s that you let us see you lose it, that you got cross, and told us to shut up when we were bickering and later apologised for it. That you got stressed driving us around when we were scrapping furiously in the back! Every day there are moments when I regret the way I handled something with the kids and I am so glad you kept it real. I know that it is fine not to love every minute, to lose it, and to believe that when things get bad, it’ll get good again.

I can’t talk about my thanks to you without mentioning the birth of my sweet firstborn. What a long old night that was. That shock of your first. You gave me the confidence to believe I could have my baby at home and you were the one by my side as the seemingly endless night became day, telling me I could do it, and I did. And as we went off to the hospital to check on our poor meconium ingested babe, who stayed home to restore order? You, dear mum. Leaving a clean tidy home to return to and a note I will always treasure thanking us for letting you share in that experience. From that day your greatest gift to me has been to trust my instinct and make my own way.

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Me and my mum
But I feel it is selfish to keep all the wisdom of Mama G to myself, so I have a few things I’d love to ask if you’re game:

Going back to work – back at my desk after my third maternity leave, trying to find my feet and my voice again, I am even more in awe that you returned to work after a 15 year break. Was that hard? Did you struggle to find the confidence? If you did, I never knew.

I always had in my mind the idea that, at some point, I would like to return to teaching in some capacity. I remember walking as a new first time mum past a noisy school playground and thinking that I missed that environment. I didn’t think then that it would be seven children and so many years later before I took that step back to work!

To build my confidence I initially worked as a teaching assistant, gradually building my experience by working in three different schools, with pupils with a range of needs. So it was a gradual process back to teacher status and finally to coordinating the special needs provision in one of the schools.

Then it was the juggling act with which so many women are familiar, trying to run a home, meet the needs of family (including my elderly mother) and go to work!

2017 vs 1977 – I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on my generation of parents, so many books to read, so many labels to give yourself and rods to make for your own back depending on whether you choose to sleep train, baby led wean, bottle feed or cloth bum, work or not work. I love Instagram, but as a parent you have a much wider circle of women to compare yourself to and we are not always the kindest on ourselves. Are we all overthinking it? Did people just get on and raise their kids back in the 70s?

I think your last comment is quite accurate and there was really no option but to ‘just get on and raise your kids’ back in the 70s’. You are also right that there is a lot of pressure on parents now for the reasons you give. It was such a different world then. When we brought our eldest home from hospital in 1972 there were no car seats. I sat in the back of our tiny Austin A35 with her on my lap!  We had no phone or television in the house. There were no disposable nappies and most babies started off wearing terry towelling nappies and soft cotton nighties, as babygros were only just starting to appear.

Hugh Jolly Book of Child CareThere were a few child care books to which people referred. Probably the most well known was ‘The Book of Child Care’ by Hugh Jolly. (So very dated now!) There were clinics that babies were taken to where there were health visitors, but I didn’t find them very helpful. Unlike you, I was not bombarded with a confusing array of ‘methods’ on how to raise your baby and decided very quickly that no one knew my baby like I did and rightly or wrongly, followed my instincts. I didn’t have use of a car at home in the day time, so just got together with friends in a similar situation, or visited my parents who lived nearby in the early years. There were no baby classes to attend.

I’m sure that there are good things about the vast array of baby activities that are available now and indeed the choice of equipment. You are right, however, that there is the danger of feeling inadequate if you don’t join in all these things, or can’t afford to. Similarly the range of baby equipment is overwhelming. I certainly did not have the pressure to be seen with the ‘right’ pram of an acceptable make.

When does it get easier? – With a 5 year old, 4 year old and 1 year old, I’ve never felt more in the thick of it. This stage of motherhood is so physically demanding and exhausting, but is this the hardest bit? How do different stages of motherhood compare? My fear is that it is harder when they leave home and you’re just left worrying about them.

A dear friend said to me in my early days as a mother that ‘every age has it’s compensations’ and I have found that to be true.

There are many advantages of having a large family one of them being that you learn that challenging phases actually pass very quickly. The demands of a new born or the challenges of a toddler are gone in a flash and that recognition can change the way you approach things. You can even learn to appreciate and enjoy these aspects of a child’s development!

I certainly remember having four children aged five and under as being the most demanding time! Getting a five year old to the school bus stop at the right time every morning with three others in tow was very challenging!

In some respects with young children, it does get easier when they are old enough to play cooperatively. When subsequent children arrived there was more choice of playmates, which may be easier than having two who can’t stand each other! I felt that falling out with others within the security of a family was a good preparation for the harsher elements awaiting at school and beyond.

I never did find the teenage years to be the ‘terrible teens’ (although the ‘A’ level years had their challenges!). Perhaps there was safety in numbers and I watched with pride as you all became the wonderful women that you are today. Does it get easier? No it does not! Being in control of things when you were little was probably the easiest bit. Then you have to let your adult children go with love. Once you are a mother you are a mother for life and their pain is your pain whatever their age.

The sisterhood
The sistehood
Your village – One thing I observe in our generation is that there’s a well-trodden path for a lot of parents on leave – NCT to make friends, playgroups, baby sensory, baby swimming, baby signing, baby yoga. How did you meet other mums? I guess we are making our own urban village now, whereas maybe you had an actual real village of support!

In the absence of all the baby classes and groups, my ‘village’ consisted of family, friends and good neighbours. Sunday lunch was often a way we got together with our friends who had young families like us. After lunch we would all visit a local playground or park or walk in the woods.

No one really had a large network of mum friends and I was content to be in touch with our friends who were in a similar situation to us at that time. There were no mobile phones of course and not everyone had a phone in their house. It could be quite an effort to be in touch with people if you had to walk to the local phone box!

Raising women – Being a mother to seven women, did it feel like a big responsibility at the time to be our role model as a woman? Did you have a sense of how you wanted us to grow up?

I don’t think that I actually focussed on the fact that I was being your role model. Had I thought of it like that it would probably have been rather overwhelming! I was always aware of the times when I fell short of my own standards of parenting and I hope I always apologised at the end of a bad day for being a grumpy old cross patch!  Fortunately children are very forgiving and always seemed to forget about these things long before I did.

In answer to your question, yes I did have a sense of how I wanted you to grow up. I am sure you would all have a different take on how successful I was with this!

As you became adults I did try to dissuade you (not always successfully!) from making permanent changes that you may regret.( e.g. hair dying fine, but tattoos to be avoided!) Also, to be blunt, I really hated the idea of one of my daughters being someone’s one night stand. I decided that you have to have faith in the effort you have put in when raising your children and I would tell them that I trusted them to do the right thing. I was told years later that that approach had been more effective than threats!

I wanted you all to feel good about the amazing women that you are, although sadly there were inevitable wobbles along the way. Self worth is so important.  I knew that if you believed in yourselves you could achieve your ambitions, do a job that you wanted to do and you would also know that you deserved lovely friends and a kind respectful partner.

I am so proud that the sisterhood is strong and that you will always support each other.

I also wanted you to grow up secure in the knowledge that the love your dad and I feel for you all is totally unconditional. While we are able, we will always be there for you all and our beautiful grand children.

I will always consider my seven amazing daughters as my greatest achievement in life.  I love you all.

Mum and Dad with two of their nine grandchildren
Mum and Dad with two of their nine grandchildren.

In Her Words…. Sarah Topping

sarah-t-the-museSarah Topping is a freelance creative copywriter at Playing with Words. She lives in London with her husband, son and more books than they currently have room for.

http://www.playingwithwords.info


The Child that Books Built

Last week I asked my four-year-old what he’d like to be when he grows up.

‘A SPACESHIP!’ he cried.
‘You mean a spaceman?’ I asked.
‘No! A rocket launcher!’ he replied.
‘Okay . . .’ says I, ‘anything else?’
‘A caroderodontasaurus!’ he exclaimed, before running off.
‘Okay,’ I said again, before Googling the above and calling after him ‘It’s carcharodontosaurus!’ (but 10/10 for even knowing what one is).

Aside from the fact it’s physically impossible for him to be either of these things, I like his enthusiasm. As my parents wished for me and my brother, I wish for him to be whatever he wants, as long as it makes him happy. Though not a drug addict. Or a criminal. Dream big, little one, and see where it takes you. Because you never know, one day, that thing you loved so much as a kid could become your career, if all the necessary ingredients fall into place to make your dream happen.

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In these increasingly fathomless and downright scary times we face whenever we see the news, I’ve been thinking about dreams a lot; specifically, escapism. I’ve deleted the Twitter and Facebook apps from my phone because the bombardment of incomprehensible news is too much. And when it comes to escapism, I’ve realised how fortunate I am. I deal in escapism on a daily basis, for I am an avid, ardent, hopelessly devoted lover of books and reading. I thank my lucky stars this is the case. On the day things here began to seem so weird and uncertain, June 24th 2016, I found myself sitting on our sofa clutching this pile of books with an ice-cold G&T in my hands. I held them and concentrated very hard on what they represent. On this day that was so fuelled by lies and scaremongering, to me, these books stood for imagination and magic and humour and kindness and charm, wonder and adventure.

It helps to seek comfort in what you love, so I found reaching for the bookshelves a natural thing to do. But where did it begin? I have my parents, my English teachers and professors, and without a doubt, my school library and our local village library to thank for fostering and encouraging in me this unconditional love of stories and words (and spelling. Oh, spelling!). The hours I spent in that old Grade II listed building, with its nooks and crannies perfect for curling up in, with a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys or Point Horror, Sweet Valley High, Adrian Mole, Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton to name a few, are immeasurable. I didn’t know it then, as a frizzy haired kid with crooked teeth, but one day, my access to so many authors and illustrators and their imagined worlds would very much become my reality.

Because now, it is my pleasure and privilege to not only be a lover of books, but to have made books my career. For ten years, I worked at Penguin Books in London, moving from Penguin to Puffin and what is now Penguin Random House Children’s. When I see that Penguin or Puffin on book spines’, I see in my mind a place where book magic is made. A place where I spent hours surrounded by books, thinking about books, writing copy for and talking about books. When I read picture books with my son, I don’t just see the names of certain authors and illustrators; I remember a train journey I took with them or seeing them draw live at an event (yes, it’s Quentin Blake I’m thinking of here and it will forever be a Total. Life. Highlight.).

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As someone who adores books, you can guess what a special place it was to be. Since becoming a freelance creative copywriter in 2014, I have delved into the wonderful world of Harry Potter via Pottermore, I’ve discovered How to Train Your Dragon, written about motherhood for Ladybird and how to celebrate World Book Day. I’ve happily revisited the worlds of the BFG, Matilda, Charlie et al, amongst many other delightful projects, for both adult and kids’ books. I’m not throwing these names around lightly either, please know that. I’m more than a little overwhelmed to know that this year, my blurbs will feature on some of Enid Blyton’s most iconic series’; stories I still have the bumper hardback editions of, complete with sellotaped spines and inscriptions from my family wishing me luck in my 1988 ballet exam. For that little girl, whose recently rediscovered 1988 school report notes ‘Sarah is a keen reader. She always has her nose in a book’, it’s a childhood dream come true.

sarah-books

It is a special and privileged thing to be able to do what you love, and love what you do. I know that. This is why, taking all of the above into account, it’s so unbelievably sad and frustrating that libraries up and down the country are faced with cuts and closures. Talented and dedicated librarians are losing their jobs and future generations of readers are being punished. And it truly is a punishment, when these community spaces are not valued enough for what they offer everyone who steps inside and into a room filled with shelves of life-enhancing information and imagination enriching stories. Beyond that, they are being denied the experience of these books; yes, an eBook is convenient. But what about the smell and feel of the physical book? Beautiful, enchanting illustrations that sweep you away? You can’t lovingly smooth the pages on the Kindle app. Tap vs touch; it doesn’t compare.

Yesterday this quote by Professor Stephen Krashen, illustrated by Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell, made me stop and stare. So simple, and so true. ‘Reading for pleasure, reading for life.’ It strikes such a chord because I am a case in point. I was, and still am, lucky enough to have access to so many books, as does my son and our new baby will too. I cannot imagine my life, or my children’s lives, without books. I’m so delighted when I see my little boy independently sitting with a book in his lap, gazing at the pictures and ‘reading’ the words he knows well, or when he asks me at 6.30am for a story. Well, obviously not delighted straight away because I’m so bleary-eyed, but once I’ve had coffee the answer is yes. It could never not be.

libraries

When it comes to reading, the doors it opens can’t be underestimated. And a love of reading cannot be supported if library doors are being slammed shut. ‘Ssssssshhh, we’re in a library!’ is a fond and familiar refrain, for these are places to be treated with respect and love. But there’s nothing to be quiet about when it comes to saving our libraries. Never mind ‘Sssssshhh!’. It needs to be a deafening roar.

Right Now I’m…
Reading: Most recently I loved Little Deaths by Emma Flint – devastating, mesmerising and I’ll have to read again, and Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough – can’t stop thinking about the ending.
And when it comes to children’s books, the top five picture books we return to time and again are Kicking a Ball by Allan Ahlberg and Sebastien Braun, Sir Scallywag and the Golden Underpants by Giles Andreae and Korky Paul, Oh No, George! by Chris Haughton, Something Else by Kathryn Cave and Chris Riddell and Captain Jack and the Pirates by Peter Bently and Helen Oxenbury.

Listening to: The ‘Hypnobirthing Relaxation Audio Colour and Calmness’ app with Katharine Graves.

Watching: The last series I binge-watched was The Missing series two, v chilling. And over Christmas we watched Hunt for the Wilderpeople on Netflix and I’ve been recommending it to anyone who’ll listen ever since.

Pass it On…  Nominate up to three women that you’d like to see featured on The Muse:
Katya Shipster @chaletdesoie
Katya is Deputy Publicity Director at Michael Joseph, mother of two small boys and co-owner of the stunning Chalet de Soie in Morzine, which she and her husband renovated from the ground up in 2013, whilst living and working full-time in London.
Blog: http://chic-happens.net/

Helen King
@hegsking
Helen is the former Head of Education at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre and Head of Campaigns for the National Crime Agency. Helen is now Director of External Relations for Pause, which works to help women who have had multiple children removed, as well as being mum to four young children. That phrase ‘I don’t know how she does it?’ Totally applies to Helen.

Shannon Cullen @imwreckedmother
Shannon is a Publishing Director at Penguin Random House Children’s, mother of two and her brilliant new book, I’m Wrecked, This is My Journal, which she recently wrote on maternity leave with her newborn son, publishes in March.

In Her Words… by Jo Olney

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Jo Olney is one of seven sisters, mother to 3 children and works as a digital marketer in the world of children’s publishing.  She is also co-founder of The Muse.

On Marching

As the fifth of seven children, I’m a natural born diplomat. Happier to maintain the order and keep all parties happy, than speak out at the risk of upsetting others. The last time I think I was actively engaged in a movement, was after watching Free Willy and finding myself enraged at the plight of the orca. I may have done a sponsored silence in their honour. So, it came as something of a surprise to find myself at the women’s march on London with tears pricking my eyes, seeing thousands of people united in love trumping hate, in upholding dignity and equality for all, and determined to safeguard our freedoms and our rights.

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Women’s March on London

When I became a mother 5 and a half years ago, I looked my tiny girl in the eye and promised her, as I’m sure all parents do, that I would love her, care for her, give her the best I could in every way. The world was her oyster. Her gender never even crossed my mind to be a barrier to be overcome, that she’d ever grow up in a world where she had more to prove than her male counterparts to achieve the same – maybe I was naïve.

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Olive and her Girls Rock! placard
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Flo on Jo’s shoulder (let’s have a  moment for those panda gloves)

Being one of seven sisters I had a ready-made sisterhood. I don’t ever recall being aware of my gender in any way other than it being a fact – yes I am a woman, and? With so many kids, my parents were equally hands on, quite literally as I recall hair washing night! And beyond that early sisterhood, my career in publishing has been so female-dominated that 14 years in and I’m yet to report into a man. That gives a certain false sense of security perhaps. Until of course you attempt to work flexibly, and depressingly my sector was no more flexible than many others, at which point you see the talent haemorrhage out of the building at around the age of 35.

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Jo and Dan with Olive

So it was with some embarrassment that I tried to explain to my 5 year old why I thought we needed to go and march in London on Saturday. To explain that a man who was publicly mean to women (massive understatement, clearly), to the disabled, to pretty much anyone not exactly like himself, so much so he wanted to build a wall to stop others coming in, was now President of the United States. To explain that some people think that women are not as good as men, that they shouldn’t earn the same money for doing the same job, that some girls don’t get to go to school and learn like she does and that we needed to march and say this is not ok. I was thinking she kind of got it, that all people are human and all humans are equal, until she countered, “No they’re not, statues are not human”. So yep, we still have some work to do.

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The Olney family march London

So off we set, my husband and I, with a 5 year old, 3 year old and 1 year old, and not without trepidation. Kids walking in the cold rarely ends happily for us, but they were amazing because the whole damn vibe was amazing. That feeling of the power of unity, of standing together, of not just being a witness, but taking part and being counted. And as we stood in the sunshine in Trafalgar Square and she sounded out, as 5 year olds do, the placard resting on the lion “I. Am. Woman. Hear me ROAR!” To which she and her sister of course both ROARED, I felt those tears pricking again. I felt hope that their future would be good, that their generation would keep pushing on and making this world one of fairness and tolerance and kindness, celebrating our differences and not letting them divide us. I hope that as they sat on our shoulders looking out over the crowds, somewhere in their hearts and minds we planted something of an understanding that we are all citizens in this society and it is our responsibility to change it. But I also very much hope that 30 years from now, they’re not getting their placards out for this shit because I did not think in 2017 a pussy grabbing president could even be a reality and I sure as hell hope in 2047 it isn’t.

Right Now I’m…
Reading: The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson
Watching: I’ve just been to see La La Land
Listening to: Kisstory

Pass it On:
(Please nominate up to three people that you’d like to see featured on The Muse)
Sophy Henn: @sophyhenn – Whose latest character Edie would definitely have been marching on Saturday!
Sarah Topping: @sarahtopping3 – An ex colleague and good friend, Sarah is an exceptional copy writer

In Her Words… by Ann Eve

Ann EveAnn Eve is currently working with two of her favourite things: food and people helping each other out.  Communicating the good work that food charities do. She also enjoys mags, laughing too loudly, kitchen dancing, greyhounds and her two lovely kids. www.annmeve.com

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A mixed ability martial arts class in Kent was not where I expected to experience a mental health epiphany.

I’d started going to martial arts to get fit, get strong and learn how to hit things.

I can barely tell my left from my right.  I have no co-ordination.  I don’t like touching people.  

First lesson: stare an unfamiliar man in the eye whilst running my hand along his sweaty inner arm, from wrist to bicep, then mock hitting him in the temple.  I would cringe, flail, apologise, get it wrong, pretend laugh at myself, make a joke.  “It’s okay, you’re learning”, I heard again, and again, and again. I loved learning how to hit, kick, defend myself.  I loved the beauty of the practice sequences and the crack when you accurately landed a punch in a mitt.

Our teacher, John, isn’t quite sure of my name (I go with a friend.  We look and sound similar).  When he’s tired, he expostulates.  I want to hit things.  In this hierarchical system, I have to listen actively and with intention.  I sigh about that.

Back in February 2015, I left a comfy job of 11 years.  The field was academic psychology.   We’d tease each other with mock diagnoses of addiction to hot sauce or booze, of obsessive desk-tidying or propensity to collect small change.  Gallows humour to help us deal with some of the sad, sad stories we’d read every day.

I’d read a lot of psychological questionnaires, designed to probe people to (unwittingly) divulge symptoms of depression, psychosis, addiction, anxiety.  Definitions of anxiety would come just that little too close for comfort.  My inability to stop worrying was only because of our awful, angry, noisy downstairs neighbours; becoming easily irritable – well, two small children. Feeling nervous for more than two weeks? Money. Inability to sit still? Just a fidget, always a fidget! And who’d blame me for being irritable and anxious at home?  Our building of twenty-eight flats managed one double murder, one unfortunately successful suicide and an electrical fire by our front door that left us without electricity and water for five days.

Robbie the DogOne year later, 25 miles and a world away from that fucking building, and then away from academia and my colleagues, my friends.  My desk was now the kitchen table and my only colleague a retired greyhound called Robbie.  I had the job I’d longed for, events and PR for a company that I’d admired for years.  Working in food, being around the kids more, no commuting! No more office politics and sad stories! Now in a house!  No drunk and incoherent neighbours!  No crime scene tape!

Despite being away from all this, I still couldn’t relax.  Every infraction would be given a catastrophic end point; leaving out the milk meant wasting money and environmental disaster; my kids back chatting me meant they’d walk all over us in the future.  I’d shriek and shout, boiling into rages, swearing and slamming doors.

John the Martial Arts instructor is flexing his considerable bicep.  “This is not strength, this is tension”.  Releasing the crunch in his arm, he swings his body back over his left hip, leaning his weight back.  His eyes seem to shut, but they are focussed on the boxing mitt ahead.  His left arm now sailing through the air, feet, legs, hips, core, chest, neck, head, all spiralling towards the mitt. As his gloved hand meets the crash pad, the black belt holding it is spun 180 degrees to his left.  “That is strength.  To be strong you need to be calm, be in control, and flexible.  Tension is not strength”.

Working in psychology didn’t help me to see what was plainly in front of me.  Putting myself in the position of novice & least able was what I needed.  Add to the mix a husband who supports me and is my champion.  

Familiarity with the science of anxiety and mental health issues was the foundation. We’ve all got out issues.  John’s martial arts advice was my epiphany.  Now I meditate, I’ve tried to get to what I wasn’t dealing with (work! money! ambition!), I make exercise as important as feeding my family or changing the sheets.

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Now when we practice hooks my arm curves through the air, my gaze is on the pad and my body is learning to turn with my arm to increase power.  This term I’m learning to coil it back, hold it, then release and let my arm move with its own momentum.  If you set it up right, the punch will land.

I’ve learnt how to land a sound right hook.  I like to hit things and hear the crack of my fist.

Right Now I’m….

Watching: RuPaul’s Drag Race, Schitt’s Creek, Transparent, Parks & Recreation. Wish I could get ‘Atlanta’

Reading:
‘Down in the City’ by Elizabeth Harrower.  Domestic violence in mid-century Sydney.

‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ by Lucia Berlin. A collection of short stories, writing about motherhood, caring, alcoholism.  Sparse and provoking.

‘A Book for Her’ by Bridget Christie.  Saw Bridget at ‘End of the Road’ – funny, perceptive and smart.

Listening to: Courtney Barnett. 6 Music. 90s R&B.

Pass it on:

Kim McGowan @mcgowankim

Polly Robinson @FoodSafari

Read more from Ann at www.annmeve.com or chat food and greyhounds on Twitter at @AnnMEve

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In Her Words… Losing Finn by Lora Price

image1Lora is a wife and mummy of four sons.  In 2012 her family were devastated when her third son, Finn was born sleeping.  

Her brave and honest account below was written to promote Baby Loss Awareness Week this week.

 

In Her Words… Losing Finn by Lora Price

My third little boy, Finn, is 4 years old. He would have started school in September, joining in his brother’s morning rituals which are sealed with a kiss goodbye in the school playground. I imagine he would be delighted and excited by the prospect of being a big boy and starting school.  I imagine. I imagine everything about Finn, as he isn’t with me anymore.

The aftermath of losing Finn was deeply wounding. The grief was engulfing and all-encompassing whilst my deep sense of guilt was choking. I lived on the fringes in the early weeks, as babies born sleeping seemed to be one of the great unmentionables.

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Lora with Finn

I was angry. Angry at my own body; angry at those people who were still pregnant; angry at those who tried to comfort me with their own sadness of miscarriage (I have had four of those too). Finn was a perfectly formed 5lb 8oz little boy. He may have been stillborn, but he was still born.

Finn is irreplaceable, yet a few months after his passing my arms felt desperately empty and I became pregnant again. Interestingly, I felt more normal when I was, as suddenly friends who had gone quiet were more comfortable speaking to me again. At 34 weeks, our family was blessed with the arrival of our fourth little boy Joshua Finlay Martin, known as Joss. Our tiny miracle perfectly filled our yearning arms and helped us smile again.

With Joss in our lives, I felt strong enough to start the beginning of our new future. Sadly, this was short lived as one week post-birth I learned that my beloved father had, unbeknown to me, started an aggressive battle with cancer. (He had withheld telling me whilst I was pregnant as he didn’t want me worrying). He put up an incredibly strong fight with the bravest of faces, but four months later cancer took my Dad and enveloped me in the tentacles of grief yet again.

This grief was akin to carrying a boulder around with me all day. I struggled under the pressure, my knees buckled and my arms strained to maintain grip. But letting myself go through this grieving process, allowing myself to feel angry, to unapologetically feel like I had been wronged, that I was the victim, that life was unfair, was in hindsight key to starting the healing process.

It takes time to feel human again and I remember feeling a huge sense of pressure to seek professional help. For reasons that I don’t even understand myself, I couldn’t face this. I couldn’t tolerate the thought of exposing or sharing my deepest feelings with someone I didn’t know. I was much more comfortable being the shoulder to cry on, rather than the one doing the crying. Or maybe I just didn’t want them to take the pain away?

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Lora’s dad with his grandson Joss

You can’t heal every wound and I believe that is OK. The ache in my heart is important and I don’t ever want it to fully subside. It’s what tells me that I love Finn so deeply, it’s how I take Finn everywhere with me and it’s my barometer which helps me evaluate what is important in everyday life.

However, I am not ashamed to admit that contentment and happiness are a big part of my life again. I spent the early part of this evening with Sonos belting out some big tunes in the kitchen whilst my husband, three other children and I busted some shapes amongst a furore of laughter! However, as I sit here writing this article with a glass of wine on standby, I am joined by tears rolling down my face and a very heavy heart and it got me thinking about how often I cry now. Is it daily? No. Is it weekly? I’m not sure. Is it about Finn or my Dad? I don’t know and really it doesn’t matter because I love and miss them both. But what I do know is that crying feels much easier and more manageable now, as I know that happy times are just around the corner again. I’d actually go further to say that shedding a tear is for me now is a therapeutic exercise. It’s always done privately, in a quiet moment at home or maybe on a contemplative country walk with my faithful four-legged friend, but for me it is like releasing the pressure valve which allows me to be the wife, the mummy and the friend I want to be. Crying (and writing!) are my own personal forms of healing it would seem.

In fact, I jest about writing, but actually in the early months after losing Finn I found myself enslaved to the computer as I completed a piece of writing which captured our two days with him. This documentation of Finn’s time with us proved to be somewhat cathartic. I was conscious that time could possibly erode the details and I was keen to preserve as much of that time as possible. It’s neither a heart-warming or uplifting read, but it is an honest and precious account, you can find it here: Forever My Finlay 

It is clear to me now that I was particularly fortunate to be surrounded by such a strong and patient group of people who gave me the platform to face the future again with renewed strength and hope. However, one of the most painful struggles I faced in the early months was the discomfort that clearly resided in many friends, dare I say some extended family members too. I get it. Giving birth to a baby who isn’t alive is a difficult reality for everyone to face. Many people don’t have previous experience to draw upon when dealing with friends in this situation. What do you say to them? Talking about said baby will only cause further upset surely? So, many simply said very little. At best ‘how are you?’ At worst, nothing. Certainly there was never any mention of his name. I don’t want Finn to become a forgotten member of our family or his name to be a taboo word in my presence. I yearn to hear his name still. Yes, it may bring tears to my eyes, but it also brings music to my ears.

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Lora with her boys and husband David

So looking back now, how do I reflect on all this? I do believe I can see the world in many more colours than I did before we had Finn. Having witnessed both the fragility and blessing of life I am more self-aware than I was before, I count my blessings with much more commitment and I look to really enjoy and not second-guess the good times. To get to the place I am in now, I had a choice to make; I could stagnate and let the world move on without me or I could re-join the journey and start moving forwards again. I chose to jump aboard life’s train, in part, because I owe it to my incredible family unit, but also because I am so grateful to be alive. Many people didn’t go to bed last night or didn’t wake up this morning. But I did. And I am grateful.

I am also much more mindful now of how I react to others facing difficult times, whether great or small. I always try to step off the ledge and offer the comfort that I feel I didn’t always receive. To be honest, this has had a varied response, some have closed me down not wishing to go any further, but equally some have welcomed that subliminal nod which allows conversation to unfold.

I don’t profess to have a secret ingredient as to how best to get through times such as these, I think everyone’s road to reach their new normal is totally personal and unique to them. What I would say though is if I can, then you certainly can too. Also, for those readers who do have a friend out there who does need you, then don’t let your social awkwardness stop you from being the friend you want to be or the friend you need to be.

Everyone’s life will undoubtedly have ups and downs. I believe it is critical to appreciate and savour the ups because this creates the reserves of strength that you need to deal with the downs.

Finally, my advice when you are going through your own crisis: listen to advice but don’t allow this well-intentioned counsel to take you in a direction you are uncomfortable with. Trust yourself and you will find the right path back to happiness.

For anyone looking for support following the loss of a baby, the following charities offer excellent advice:

Sands 
Tommys 
Saying Goodbye 
The Mariposa Trust 
Baby Loss Awareness

In Her Words…. by Abigail Tarttelin

 

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Abigail Tarttelin

 

Abigail Tarttelin is the author of award-winning intersex novel Golden Boy, and editor of I Hope You Like Feminist Rants zine. Issue #2 on Motherhood is for sale online now at http://civilizedanimal.bigcartel.com.

Follow Abigail on Instagram @civilizedanimal

 

 

 
In the last week, I have made three long distance journeys in my car, to meet a newly-born relative, visit an old friend, and collect a colleague from the train station for a very exciting work project. I own a 2014 New Generation 1.2 SE Hyundai i10, with Bluetooth, a roomy interior, and leather steering wheel, and I love driving it. Before I bought it I made a list of requirements, then whittled it down to my deal-breakers: it should be five-door, economical, and easy on the eye. I scoured What Car? for vehicles that fit the bill, leased a Chevy Spark, visited several garages, and rejected all but one on the grounds that the lads working there assumed I didn’t know anything about cars, and asked if my parents would be paying (hell, no).

I couldn’t afford the optional stop-start technology but at £40 for 440 miles the standard SE is cheap to run, and, because I bought it new, came with five years of unlimited-mileage warranty, roadside assistance, and health checks. The engine is near silent and does 80mph on the motorway without hassle.

Yesterday I was filling up my tank, watching another woman disembark her vehicle, and thinking about how much I like to see women driving. I get oddly emotional about it. Stranger still, I also like seeing women at the petrol station. I asked myself: why?

First, I suppose it’s because just fifty years ago, it wasn’t the done thing. Even today, in parts of the world, it is forbidden on religious grounds (Saudi Arabia), or uncommon (for example, in Afghanistan or Egypt). These women are exercising a right which wasn’t theirs until recently.

Women driving has changed incrementally over the last 5 decades. In my family, my Nan never learnt to drive; my great aunt – a gutsy, single mother – got her license later in life, and my mother passed her test in platform shoes and drove to London the next day. My cousin remembers her as the cool auntie who would pile the kids in her estate and take them on adventures. She lived far away, on the coast, and had a hip, long-haired boyfriend (my Dad). In the UK, the percentage of women driving rose from 50% to 64% between 1995 and 2010. I am represented in this statistic, passing my test two days before my eighteen birthday in 2005, and then my advance driving test the next year.

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Abigail’s mum

So, the swelling feeling in my chest is partly that each woman driving is a little victory in the face of history, but it’s also, for me, about something more personal than that.

These women are going somewhere, at their own volition. When the car runs out of juice (here comes the petrol station part), they will not be stopped, because they have the economic power to fill it themselves. A car is an intimate personal space, for a woman to be alone, an individual, an independently thinking and moving person; a momentary bachelor, no matter her personal or marital situation. She is the driver of her car, her life, her ambition. She is an active force, and not passively carried to her destiny in the passenger seat, or stopped by the headwind. She is an arrow, shot from a bow she strung herself, moving through the world at her own will, and in her own time. She strides valiantly through the oil moistened forecourt with her bank card in hand, as men (why are there always so many more men than women at petrol stations?) stare at her, wondering where this goddess came from, and where she is going. But they’ll never know, because she doesn’t rely on f***ing anyone.

Right Now I’m….

Watching: Chelsea Handler on Netflix

Reading: Wetlands by Charlotte Roche

Listening to: Beyonce’s Lemonade

Pass it on:

Who would you most like to see featured on this blog?

Brodie Lancaster (Filmmes Fatales zine editor) @brodielancaster

Sarah Winter (Versailles actress) @sarahelizwinter

In Her Words… MS: My Story by Emma Gibbs


Emma Gibbs is 36 and lives in south west London with her husband and son. She works in the Press Office at London Fire Brigade. 
Emma was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2013 and is keen to raise awareness of the condition, which 100,000 people suffer from in the UK. 

MS: My Story

2013 was a memorable year for me in several ways – a life-changing year of incredible highs and devastating lows. The headlines were: getting engaged, getting married, getting MS and falling pregnant.

Before 2013 I’d never really paid much attention to Multiple Sclerosis (MS), didn’t even really know what it was. So when I was told, two weeks after my honeymoon and six weeks before falling pregnant with my first baby, that I had it, I felt like I’d been hit by a bus.

  
My husband, Phil, proposed to me in February 2013 and once I had that ring on my finger the wedding planning began in earnest, with the big day booked for just six months later. Amidst the frantic planning, I decided to get fit and lose some weight. I took up running, but something weird started happening to my left leg: it became numb and dead, making running really difficult. That coupled with persistent pins and needles, and a slight tremor in my left hand was enough to send me off to the doctors, who duly told me that there was nothing wrong and it would go away. After a near-miss at a tube station, where my legs gave way and I nearly fell down some stairs, I went back and was finally taken seriously and referred to a neurologist for further tests.

A week or so after returning from an amazing honeymoon in Madagascar, where I remember lying on a tropical island, wondering why my feet felt like they’d been left in the deep-freeze, I was sent for an MRI scan of my brain. I was very swiftly called back to see the neurologist who delivered the devastating news that I had MS. I was told I had the ‘relapsing-remitting’ form of the disease, which means that you can be hit by some symptoms, which can then improve and recede, and then you can be ‘fine’ again for a few months, until the next attack strikes.

  
I wasn’t sure how to deal with the diagnosis of an illness that I knew nothing about. I knew it was bad, would be life-changing, and could mean I’d end up disabled, and that was about it. I felt like I’d been dropped down a well and was unable to get out. And I think one of the hardest parts of my diagnosis was telling those close to me – it was so hard dealing with other peoples’ reactions before I’d even worked out how I felt about it myself.

Before I began to understand a bit more about MS, and that stress can trigger symptoms, I was hit by a series of relapses in a very short space of time: I had blurred vision for a few weeks, suffered from poor balance and problems walking, but the worst symptom was excruciating pains down my left arm and down the left side of my face. I’d been fortunate to reach the age of 33 without ever really experiencing pain, but this was something else – breathtaking and exquisite in its absolute intensity. The pain came and went up to 20 times or more during an hour and when it struck, it rendered me unable to think, move or speak.

And then suddenly, in the midst of dealing with the physical and emotional fall-out of MS, I fell pregnant. We were both beyond happy, and thank goodness had something positive to focus on, but unfortunately my relapse and pain continued for six months of my pregnancy, which made life difficult as I couldn’t take any medication. Although, on the plus side – by the time it came to giving birth I was pretty experienced at dealing with pain, and delivered my 9lb son without drugs or any problems!

It was around this time I ‘found’ mindfulness, which has proven to be the most helpful thing in helping me to deal with things. I learnt the benefits of staying in the moment, rather than worrying about the past or the future – a vital coping mechanism when living with a condition as uncertain as MS.

Another positive thing to come out of my diagnosis was the opportunity to meet some lovely people: others living with MS, and those who volunteer to help people with the condition. With an almost-two-year-old I’m strapped for time, but when time allows I volunteer for my local branch of the MS Society in Lambeth and Southwark, partly motivated by selfish reasons – to meet others with MS, and also to try and help those being newly diagnosed with the condition as I know just what a devastating experience this can be.

So what next? MS has left me with some weakness down my left arm and leg and quite numb feet – these residual symptoms, caused by nerve damage, are unlikely to go away, as well as bouts of fatigue which can leave me exhausted. I can’t possibly know what my future holds, but after an initial period of grieving and dealing with the diagnosis, I am now feeling much stronger and more positive. Living with a long-term condition has certainly given me a new-found appreciation for all the good things I have going for me – my family, friends, home and job and something as simple as a walk in the park on a sunny day is something I no longer take for granted. I can’t possibly know how I will be in in five, ten or twenty years time, which is why I’m even more certain of the need to enjoy every day as much as I possibly can right now.

What is MS?

MS is a neurological condition which affects around 100,000 people in the UK and most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20-40. A condition of the central nervous system (brain and spine), the symptoms of MS are caused by the body’s immune system attacking the protective coating around nerves. As the central nervous system links everything the body does, many different symptoms can appear in MS. The specific symptoms depend upon which part of the central nervous system is affected and the job of the damaged nerve. There is no known cause and currently no cure.

You can read more about MS on the MS Society’s website.