Waking up in Cornwall – a life update

I was reorganising the playroom the other day (because when am I not reorganising that room as if I’ll one day walk in and magically find there isn’t too much stuff in there) and I had a bit of an epiphany. I wasn’t holding a baby. There wasn’t a baby calling for my attention. She wasn’t even in the same room, off instead with her sisters in the adjoining living room, genuinely trying to join in with whatever game they were playing.

I know it’s been like this for a while. They make a lot of space for her and I’m not even sure she’s aware that at fifteen months old, she’s a good few sizes smaller than they are. But I don’t know. Filling a bin liner of stuff-we-are-so-not-keeping-why-did-we-even-bring-it-with-us-in-the-move, I recognised a clarity of mind that’s been absent for some time. I feel like I’m waking up from a two-year stretch of dysfunctional sleep in which my dreams have mainly consisted of trying to wake myself up or trying to lift my eyes to see something above me and finding my lids an obstacle. It feels like freedom.

Nine months on from our move to Cornwall, a settling the length of a pregnancy, I’m waking up somewhere new, somewhere I’d never imagined being. My life looks so different here. My children are considerably older. It’s becoming a stretch to call Delilah a baby. She has only to start walking and I’ll have to admit what she already knows that she is a child. Ophelia is suddenly, at three and a half, full of conversation, reasoning and astonishingly well-expressed opinions. Talitha is on to chapter books and bigger questions and showing me how to do stuff. Six feels like such a different phase but then I’ll always feel that way about the eldest, I guess.

But it’s not just about the kids. Something has shifted for me outside of that. Perhaps the physical space is impacting the landscape of my mind. I do believe in that sort of thing. I am spending so much more time outdoors than I ever have in my life and there must be some effect specific to being confronted by so much beauty so frequently. I am amazed that I get to exist here right now.

There’s also something in the practicalities of how our life has changed. I’ve had to make more of an effort to grow a social network. Concern for the kids has been a powerful motivator in that regard. Coming to terms with that has been such a freeing thing, to know that I just have to go for it so I’m just going to go for it. Recently, I recognised that I experienced a huge loss of confidence when I moved countries eleven years ago and I’m really only starting to recover some of that now, through this process.

At the same time, I still harbour a lot of fears around taking these wonderful connections that I’m making with people and going further with them. Yet I know that caution is double edged and while not making myself vulnerable, not opening up might spare me rejection, it also prevents me from going as deeply as I want to go with people and anyone who already knows me well knows I am always longing to go so, so deep. So, yeah, that’s something that’s going to take time but it’s also something that doesn’t happen on its own.

Waking up from the baby haze means starting to ask a lot of questions again about what my life is going to look like, about where I’m going to invest my love and energy. I feel the need to create, to reach out there, to be a part of something bigger again.

Inevitably, my thoughts also turn to God. I don’t shy away from talking about faith here on this blog but it is difficult sometimes to know how to frame it when mostly my mind is full of questions and my heart is hungry. I know others who say they’ve found great sustenance in God in times of overwhelm like the baby rearing years and cross country uprooting. That’s not me.

Honestly, I feel like I’ve not had time to process a lot of things that have happened over the past few years and that I haven’t had the clarity to contemplate. I’ve felt sometimes like I’m walking into spiritual experiences broken, with doubts and disappointments that should not be named for fear of what others might think. This is no way to live so I won’t do it anymore. I am hopeful that God’s hand still holds me when I feel uncertain about being touched. I don’t know what the journey looks like from here but I am so open.

I suppose this post is a bit of a chatty one, attempting to start throwing my thoughts out there again with some regularity, even if it means at times laying myself uncomfortably bare.


Seven ways to guard your sleep

I’m keenly aware as we enter the season of colds (I’m in recovery from a fresh hit at the moment!) and British winter guarantees us many overcast or rainy days, that it’s really important to do whatever I can to stabilise my mood and sustain good mental wellbeing. That means it’s hugely important that I guard my sleep.

I am so good at making excuses for not getting enough sleep. It’s too tempting to stay up late when it’s the only child-free time I have. I also have a fifteen-month-old who is cutting lots of teeth and looks like she’s gearing up to walk soon. So, as you can imagine, that’s affecting her, and therefore my, sleep.

But by now I know that being overtired affects my ability to remain rational, calm or creative, and leaves me ill-equipped to be with my family (or anybody) as I want to be.

Recently, I’ve been working a lot harder at guarding my sleep and it stuns me just how much happier and more capable I am after a reasonable amount of the stuff. Here are a few things I’ve discovered which may be obvious to some but might just serve as a handy reminder for others.

Limit caffeine intake
I’m probably en route to cutting out caffeine altogether but I’ve had times when I’ve been a total junkie with many cups of tea and coffee a day. Over the past few months I’ve cut down to just one cup of coffee in the morning and I’ve been amazed at how much less anxious I have felt as well as physically happier to fall asleep come bedtime.

Remove sources of light
Most of my life I’ve had some sort of light source when sleeping. Even now, I tend to have a pink night light on (I can’t sleep with blue light at all) if we are staying somewhere where it’s pitch black as it really bothers me not being able to see the baby. But generally, I’ve come to realise that I really do sleep better if it’s as dark as possible. I’m currently being kept awake by moonlight and waking with first dawn (admittedly less of a problem at this time of year). I may have to dig out an eye mask and have a look at blinds on the VELUX website as a more long term solution.

Floss
This is going to seem such an odd tip to some but I’ve found that making sure I floss before bed really improves my quality of sleep. I find it hard not be distracted by physical discomfort at the best of times and if my mouth doesn’t feel absolutely clean, I’m prone to tossing and turning. Weird but I’m going to put it out there, hoping that I’m not the only one!

Get the temperature right

I’m prone to going hot and cold at night. After a lot of experimenting, I’ve realised I need to dress lightly, use a lightweight duvet and wear socks because my feet get cold while the rest of me tends to overheat. Laurence and I actually have separate duvets now because of this. He’s generally freezing while I’m plugging a fan in!

Unplug
It’s so tempting to go to bed with a phone, especially when you know you’ll be up for night feeds but I inevitably regret it whenever I do. I try to leave my phone downstairs when I go to bed and usually find I fall asleep a lot quicker when I’ve had to wake up in the night. Even if I really can’t sleep, reading a book with a lamp is generally more soporific than scrolling through Facebook on my phone.

Develop a bedtime routine
It’s easy to think bedtime routines are the domain of children but a lot of us adults would do well to establish healthy bedtime routines for ourselves. For me, this means planning to go to bed earlier and starting the routine well before I want to be asleep. Herbal tea, a simple yoga pose, some time praying – and a good floss – and away I go.

Nurture the space
After years of saying that I was just messy and couldn’t do anything about it, I have recognised that clutter is detrimental to my mental wellbeing and I’ve been working hard at changing my ways. The bedroom is a bit of a sacred space in this regard. I really feel it if I lie down in a messy room now so I prioritise putting things away, keeping it aired and cleaning any dust. It’s made a huge difference.

What do you reckon? Is there more I could consider? Dare I ask how your sleep has been lately?

This post was brought to you by VELUX


Beautiful reads for kids – Storytime magazine

I love a good print subscription. We have a few for the kids and they get such a rush opening the post and looking through new magazines when they arrive. Magazines often throw things up for us to explore further or new activities to try. In the past, we’ve mostly done science and nature ones but every now and then I’d eye up a fiction magazine. I finally got my chance to get a closer look when Storytime asked if we’d like to review their magazine.

The illustrations are fresh, colourful and quirky, in the style of modern storybooks. The pages are of a heavier paper stock, not card but not flimsy. These are magazines made for collecting. We certainly won’t be throwing them away.

The content is pretty timeless. My eye was drawn to this poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, made more accessible for my kids by the illustrator’s keen sensibility. Talitha went ahead and read both issues we were sent but when I read them to her afterwards, we talked about the art of reading poetry, that it’s often transformed by reading aloud. Ophelia was taken by Gabriel Setoun’s “Jack Frost” poem, following the many pictures he paints on the windows at night, verse by verse.

The magazine brings together classic and original tales, myths and legends from around the world, fairy tales and rhymes. They are carefully curated, the tales thrilling and the standard high. My older two, at three and six are delighted with it but I imagine they would have been a good fit for me at ten or even older too.

Along with a fact or a themed activity to accompany each story, there’s a “storytime playbox” at the back with word searches, brainteasers, prompts for drawing, crafts, recipes – all offering a chance to take the stories further. There’s even a game to play. Springing you further into reading, each issue concludes with book recommendations for children too.

Storytime has clearly been carefully conceived and it’s certainly beautifully executed. We’ve had ours for a few weeks now and they’ve gone most places with us. Ophelia has her clear favourites that’s she’s asked me to read over and over. Talitha has so many questions about things we come across in there. I love that there are no adverts and that it raises discussions about geography, different cultures and the natural world. They just love getting lost in beautiful stories.

Storytime sent us two issues for review and have also given us a year’s subscription in exchange for this post. All gushing is entirely honest, though. I absolutely love this magazine and what they stand for as a social enterprise, working with schools, charities and councils to make high quality reading materials available at a low price.

You can also grab a 10% discount on your subscription here. Storytime even sends out educational resources to go alongside each month’s issue!


Our homeschooling month – September

September brought with it that predictable back-to-school feeling, even though we don’t particularly pay school terms much mind. Learning is woven into our living. A book is read while a baby is fed, French phrases are practised conversationally over meals, giving and spending pocket money sparks addition, subtraction and multiplication. We don’t do school at home.

Yet after a summer of disruption, with visitors coming through and home ed groups pausing, we’ve been craving routine again. The weeks are gradually taking a recognisable shape as we refine where to go and what to commit to.

We’re probably doing more groups than we need to but I feel like though we’ve made some great connections, we’re still building our community and it’s worth keeping the net wide, staying open to meeting new people and going deeper with those we’ve already connected with.

Talitha spent the summer counting down to Beavers starting again. She’s now invested which was a big deal for her. She’s also started violin lessons, practising every day. Ophelia started a fun dance class, something she’d set her heart on. She was so excited she wouldn’t even let us stay with her for the trial lesson.

We’re following Story of the World, an engaging read aloud history curriculum, supplementing with Usborne books, online videos and the accompanying activity book. Talitha also went to a history workshop at the local museum which will be running monthly and tying in with what we’re reading about. This time she learned about the Stone, Bronze and Iron Age, handled models of artefacts, ground wheat and made a clay pot.

For the last couple of years we’ve dipped in and out of Exploring Nature with Children, a Charlotte Mason inspired curriculum that weaves together science, art, literature and nature study. We’ve started keeping to it a bit more now that local friends are following it too. This month we covered seeds, mini beasts, the Autumn equinox and Autumn leaves.

Our read alouds have included finishing off Moominpapa by the Sea, flying through Milly Molly Mandy and digging into Heidi. Talitha read an adaptation of the last and asked if we could read the real thing. When we got started I worried that it would be too dense but she’s truly enjoying it, hungry for the next chapter and talking about it later in the day. Ophelia’s read alouds are Winnie the Pooh and Frog and Toad. She’s a bit obsessed with the latter! Both have fallen in love with the stories, illustrations and poems in Storytime magazine. Come back tomorrow for a review of it here on the blog. (Edited to add: you can read my review of Storytime here).

Maths, reading and writing naturally come up in our day to day lives whether in games, cooking, list making, letter writing or imaginative play. However, we’ve continued to enjoy Life of Fred, which explores maths concepts through funny stories. I’ll order the next book soon. Our Spielgaben set has seen some building and small world play but we’re finding it chaotic to get small parts out with a whirlwind toddler who wants to get into whatever her big sisters are doing. The older two have continued to enjoy Reading Eggs and Mathseeds. Talitha often pulls workbooks off the shelf for down time or disappears to curl up somewhere with a book. She’s reading Little House on the Prairie at the moment, which we’ll also read aloud soon.

The older two seem to have found a good flow of doing things independently and together now that Ophelia is happy to entertain herself with dress ups, duplo or the play kitchen and will seek out Delilah or me when her big sister doesn’t feel like playing. They also play well together and though they do fight, I’m grateful for all the time they get together. They’re also building on friendships outside the home and it’s exciting seeing Ophelia start to forge her own as she gets older.

Their big interest at the moment is ocean animals – unsurprising when you go to the beach every week. Serendipitously, this is also the theme one of the home ed groups we go to has been working on. Last week they did mammals and we visited the seal sanctuary as a little family field trip. As another happy coincidence, our first two issues of science magazine Whizz Pop Bang have covered seeds and the ocean, nicely tying in with stuff we’ve been exploring and helping them take it further. The kids have also been looking at ocean videos on The Kids Should See This and borrowed lots of ocean books from the library.

It’s impossible to pin down everything they’ve been working on. I find Talitha’s crafty creations and Ophelia’s many knots tied everywhere. Ophelia is working at writing her name. Talitha is teaching herself cursive. Delilah has worked out how to climb up slides (not ladders).

I oscillate between loving this life we have together and wanting to escape it, mainly because I worry that I’m not good at it. I am too often controlling and am working at letting go, apologising to my children and forgiving myself so I can change. I worry that we do too much. I worry that we don’t do enough. I worry that I don’t know how to just be with my children. I need to see other adults. I need to stay home and recover from putting myself out there. My kids need time and space to rest, process and create. They need to be out seeing other children and trying new things. Balance is a rare find. Yet moving into October, it feels like everything is slowly settling.


Why give children “real” art supplies

Moving into another year of home education, I’ve been reevaluating our approach to the way I offer the kids art opportunities. It’s changed so many times. I’d set up an art station with everything available so they could help themselves then move things in sight but out of reach so they needed to ask me to reach them. Then I’d totally revert. There’s been paint on cushions and glitter embedded in carpet. There’ve been times when I’ve needed to ask a baby to give me a pair of scissors left on the floor by a preschooler who’s moved on to something else. There’s been a lot of frustration around the whole thing.

Lately, we’ve reached a pretty happy place with it. We have two art stations, one in the dining room and one in the playroom. Only a few things are out so the kids aren’t overwhelmed by the options and we can see clearly where everything should go when it’s time to tidy up.

Something else has changed along the way. Bit by bit I’ve been upgrading the materials they use, trading in the “kid” options for real artist quality materials. Drawing pads to paints to sketchbooks to pencils they’ve all taken a step up and we’re really seeing the benefits.

I really think giving kids real tools and materials to work with respects their artistic efforts. It sends the message that we think what they’re up to is important and worth more than throwaway materials. The artist sketchbook my six year old uses for her nature journal has become a prized possession. Given the choice between that and a notebook with lighter weight pages, the choice was easily made. And I think it told her that I felt the observations and efforts making their way into that book mattered.

Unsurprisingly, this seems to motivate children to create. Real materials yield a greater reward, the colours more vibrant and the effects more pleasurable. As adults, we know the difference a pen that writes beautifully makes so why wouldn’t children feel the same.

Related, this then helps them to focus their artwork, spending more time on their pieces, really getting into the details, experimenting and mastering the materials they’re working with. This seems to create less waste as a result, too.

It inspires them to try new things, whether it’s thinking bigger or smaller, experimenting with different tools on a different kind of paper or attempting a totally new subject.

The end result also tends to better last and I’m inspired to take greater care in storing or displaying their work, which surely reinforces the cycle of respect and encouragement.

In collaboration with Office Stationery


How do we smash gender stereotypes for our girl family?

“Three girls! Poor dad!” Thanks, you’ve just told my children their dad wishes at least one of them were a boy. He doesn’t.
“You have your hands full. Are they all…?” My eldest has started answering this one, “Yes, we’re all girls.”
“Are you going to keep trying for a boy?” I guess the assumption here is that that’s what we were doing the second or third time. I’m always tempted to respond asking for advice on how to do that. I mean, is there a specific position for conceiving boys?

Truly, I know that this is meant as friendly conversation. I almost said “polite” but it isn’t that. Certainly not to my children. It’s the usual everyday childism that casually ignores children’s feelings while speaking about them, in front of them. It’s not unique to being “a girl family” as Talitha has dubbed us. Mothers of boys are familiar with it too.

But yes, it is meant to be friendly. So I respond with this in mind, telling my daughters when the stranger has passed that people are just surprised we have so many girls in our family.

Then I wonder how to inoculate them against the underpinning message that their gender is their most defining characteristic since it’s so often the first or only thing people choose to comment on.

By aggressively gendering children, we’ve created a society where we pay lip service to the idea that children can be anything they want to be while showing them something quite different. By and large, boys are expected to be tough, adventurous, capable and boisterous whereas girls are expected to be emotive, cautious, sociable and gentle. None of these characteristics are innately problematic. However, they’re also not innately gendered.

BBC Two recently aired the documentary “No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free?” which convincingly ties the way we treat our children to the gender inequality they experience as adults. The show continually returns to brain scans of boys and girls which debunk the myth that we are neurologically different. Gender is socially constructed. It’s a good starting point if you’ve not given the issue much thought before. And it’s still interesting if it’s long been a concern.

As a parent of a six year old, I was shocked at the gendered views the programme’s seven year olds held about men and women, the opposite sex and themselves. Perhaps home educating has sheltered us from some of the gender stereotyping pervasive in institutions?

Our children see Laurence as involved in caring for the home as I am. He is as likely to change a nappy as I am when he’s around. They may have “girly” toys but most of their toys are gender neutral or even toys stereotypically considered “for boys”. Their dressing up box houses princess dresses alongside costumes for a builder, doctor, police officer and pirate amongst others. We aren’t precious about their clothes and spend most of our time outdoors, giving them lots of opportunity to get messy and encouraging them to take risks.

Yet we have still imparted clear, at times unhelpful, ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman. In their minds, fathers go out to work and mothers stay at home to look after the children or at least work part time or from home. We try to communicate that this is a choice we’ve taken together for this period of family life but that it isn’t the way everyone does it.

Actually, we don’t consider it ideal ourselves. Laurence wants more time with the children. I’m hungry for more time to work as our kids get older. While a major life change where we both work and care for the children part time isn’t possible in the immediate future, we want to work at striking more of a balance in the present and to think about how we could change things more radically in the years to come.

I’ve also felt challenged recently to counter my learned helplessness. From hanging picture frames to mowing the lawn to figuring out what’s up with the dishwasher, I routinely leave DIY and maintenance jobs to Laurence. He is better at them (more practice, perhaps?) but what does my constant refrain “We’ll ask Daddy to do that later” say to our girls.

I hope that his involving them in these tasks helps to undo the effect of my shying away from attempting them. Talitha wielded a power drill to put our furniture together when we moved in. I’m not sure I’ve ever touched one. She knows how to put our tent up though I still don’t. They both love helping him build fires. But when things go wrong, they’re still quick to say, “Don’t worry. Daddy will do that.” My words in their mouths.

So I’m taking little steps. I learned to light the wood burner when we moved in. We take turns driving when going somewhere. This weekend I rowed our dinghy to the boat for the first time. I was terrible at it but I hope that they’ll see something in me working at difficult jobs rather than always leaving them to the person who’s more practised. I bought a wetsuit so that I can be the one to take them into the sea instead of making that a daddy thing.

We’ve been questioning what we’d do differently if they were boys. Would we be more inclined to take them out with a ball? Would Laurence involve them more in looking at rugby and cricket? Would we have the same standards in terms of grooming and manners? Would we value the same things? Would we talk to them the same way or talk about the same things? The conversation is ongoing.

From the positive pregnancy test, we start imagining the new baby, their gender a part of that. We’ve opted each time to know the sex at the twenty week scan. We even did a “gender reveal” video with Delilah (total heart melt looking back at that – how little they were!).

Yet, throughout my pregnancy with her, I felt uncomfortable about how important we made the fact that she was a girl. It doesn’t decide who she’s going to be. Being a “girl family” doesn’t decide who any of them are going to be.


Tips for moving house with a baby

We moved from Bristol to Cornwall seven months ago. We’d just come back from Thailand with six-month-old Delilah so it was a bit of a learning curve. Working with Getamover.co.uk on this post, I’ve put together a few ideas on how to make moving house with a baby a smoother process.

Plan
I find I get easily overwhelmed when it comes to tackling big jobs like cleaning the house, let alone moving house, unless I break it down into little steps. It’s hard to know where to begin otherwise and I get stuck in details that turn out to be lower priority later on. If you’re like me, it could help to write down absolutely everything that needs to get done, working logically, room by room, step by step. Then arrange when things need to be done and discuss by whom if there are other members of your household who can take on responsibility or if you need to call in help from someone else. Then do something little from your to do list so you can tick off something right away. This helps if I’m feeling particularly overwhelmed by all that needs to be done.

Take it bit by bit
Rather than aiming to get everything done in the weekend before you move, if at all possible, spread the tasks. We knew months ahead that we’d be moving so I tried to set myself little tasks that would help in the long run, like organising paperwork or sorting out the many miscellaneous bowls and drawers we’d accumulated. Starting early makes everything much more manageable.

Use a sling
I honestly don’t know how people do life with babies without a sling. For me it’s been a game changer all three times, allowing me to keep my baby close while getting on with things, particularly if they’re in a back carry. If your baby’s not keen on the sling or if you’re not confident about using one, it could be worth checking out a sling library or a babywearing consultant near you as they may have some ideas you could try – a different sling or a different carry perhaps. It’s not for everyone but it could be a real help if you find a way to make it work for you.

Build in time for focused attention
I find it difficult to multitask and often get swept up in what I’m doing, forgetting that my baby needs some focused attention too. The thing is, while I’m saying that I’ll just get this one thing done then play with the baby, the reality is that if I stop and give her the undistracted time, she might be happy to take some time on her own or with her sisters afterwards.

Arrange pet care

We moved our cats to my in-laws when we were moving out initially and then into a cattery when we were doing the move in to our new house, a month later. Seriously, you have enough on your plate trying to keep an eye on the baby while doing a house move. It could be worth taking out of the equation worrying about your pets running away.

Declutter before and after

Having recently done such a major move, I feel passionately that we need to own less. We gave away, donated or sold about a third of what we owned before moving. Then we did the same with another third while unpacking. I’m still filling about a bag every couple of weeks to go to the charity shop. My goal is to get to the point where if we ever needed to move again, it wouldn’t be an utterly daunting task, not just because we’d have less to physically move but because everything would have a place.


Pay for packing and moving

But because we didn’t achieve that (not even nearly!) before this move, we decided to factor paying for packing into our removal costs. Laurence was away working in Cornwall more than half the working week and it just wasn’t physically possible for me to get it all done without help and we could afford it so we paid for it. It really made such a difference.

Accept and ask for help
Even so, I didn’t want to leave everything to the movers or it would have been disaster on the other end as our house was very disorganised. So I said “yes” to any friends and family who offered their help, asking them to hold a baby or run an errand for me. I find it difficult to ask for help, often feeling like I’m troubling someone but, shoe on the other foot, I’d hate to think a friend needed my help and felt like they couldn’t ask so I asked.

Get a cleaner
Having done a house move before when Talitha was a toddler, I knew that the last thing we wanted to do after a move was a time-pressured house clean so I put a shout out for a cleaner on a local Facebook group and booked one to come in after the movers had taken everything. It put our minds at ease knowing that we’d left the house in a fit state for our buyers.

Adjust your expectations
Realistically, it may not all go to plan. It may just be really stressful. You may not be able to pay for much help. You may have to accept that done is better than perfect. Understanding that things won’t always go smoothly is the first step to dealing with these problems. Moving house with a baby is an extreme experience, to say the least, whatever your circumstances. A little self-compassion is certainly appropriate here. Tie in little treats where you can (like a tea break when you’ve finished a major task) and remind yourself that you are doing something big and that you’re doing what you can.