Village People

It’s become something of a cliché to talk about a parent’s need for a village to raise their children but, as I lie in my bed failing to sleep off a debilitating bout of infective mastitis and I hear my wonderful nanny taking care of the children downstairs, it feels like an omission not to talk about it.

I live far from my parents in Scotland, and quite far from my husband’s parents in the south of England. I didn’t go to school or university in London. Many of my friends from law school or work have since moved to the sticks to raise their kids: escaping terrifying stabbings on the doorstep, choking pollution and exorbitant house prices in search of charming village greens, enormous back gardens and (it would seem) a fucking hideous commute.

My sister moved to south London a couple of years ago; though it’s not really *that* far, it involves a day trip, organised in advance, rather than popping in to see each other. (My other sister moved to Mexico, so it’s a good job she’s so lovely or I’m not sure we’d be on speaking terms.)

So to where/whom do I turn, when my left boob turns a blazing red, I have a dizzying temperature and I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck?

My husband, luckily. He is supportive and amazing and I’m very very glad he’s mine. But he works tremendously hard (largely so that I can focus on looking after the kids) and I can’t call upon him every time that I wish I could: he has meetings, deadlines, responsibilities that can be passed on only in fairly dire circumstances.

My best friend, thank god. I’m not sure exactly how we managed it, but 17 years after meeting at university, we live literally around the corner from each other. She also has two kids, one of whom is just a few weeks younger than my son. There have been times when our circumstances haven’t allowed for anything more than toiling through life’s mundanities with our heads down (and will she ever forgive the betrayal of me moving to New York shortly after our sons were born instead of staying here to enjoy our maternity leave together?!) but more recently we have increasingly found ways to help each other: sometimes we take care of the other’s kids so we can get some work done or go to an unavoidable appointment; some blissful days we hang out all together and we drink tea and (increasingly often) take it in turns to offer mediation services for toddler squabbles; sometimes we all have supper together (although always at her house – did you see my previous post?!). I am so grateful that my best girl is so close.

Finally, I have the world’s most incredible nanny. She started working for us when I started working part-time when my son was around 16 months and she continues to improve my life in every possible way (not just when I’m too sick to get out of bed).

This triumvirate of THANK GOD are my saviours.

But three makes a pretty small village! And sometimes my husband is stuck at work and my best friend is doing the school run and my nanny is looking after her other charges or (god forbid) on holiday and I find myself thinking that I need more support!

I often find refuge online: I chat to fellow parents, some of whom kept me sane and made me laugh (usually to the point of waking a sleeping baby with a snort) during endless spells of cluster feeding, worries about allergies and reflux, problems with breastfeeding and weaning, and wondering if dungarees make me look like a children’s TV presenter and, indeed, if that is actually a problem… I’m not sure I can overstate how important some of these friends were to my confidence as a parent and to my mental health when I moved to New York and my village of three was a tiny village of one.

I have also noticed, since writing this blog in particular, that Facebook and Instagram hosts friends from school with whom I’ve not spoken in years and family friends and friends from my former work and friends of friends and some complete strangers, who are parents now or hope to be and who want to talk about parenting, who are going through many of the same things as me and who are helpful and kind. The best bit about posting a new blog article is, without doubt, the conversation that often ensues; it makes me feel a part of something, and maybe sometimes like I’m helping a bit too.

So I am growing an online village too, which makes me feel happy, mostly. But it also leaves me wanting more sometimes. In part because I think the internet can bring a sense of false intimacy, a feeling of closeness that might be a bit less profound than you realise. The second is that I can’t leave my kids with a virtual babysitter (obviously the TV has its place, but it isn’t very good at feeding them or changing nappies). So when the shit hits the fan and I am struggling to cope, my online village is generally too distant, literally and sometimes figuratively, to be able to help.

And I don’t just want a village for emergencies! When a long day looking after two kids stretches before me, with the only prospect of adult conversation the Amazon delivery driver or the woman who makes my takeaway coffee in our local cafe, it would help (definitely a little but sometimes a lot) to meet up with a friend in the playground or have them pop over for a cup of tea (or wine, depending on how long the day in question has been thus far).

But… (and I feel like a teenager writing her diary as I type) making new friends is so hard! I’ve often chatted to fellow mums in a cafe, at a baby music class or even in the GP’s waiting room, but I’ve never been brave enough to bridge the gulf of unfamiliarity and vulnerability to ask them for a coffee.

I’ve also seen lots of meet-ups for mums on Instagram but I’ve only been brave enough to go to one so far (an “OLA Mama mum meet” about photography, which was fantastic but I arrived late, perhaps missing the mingling, and I didn’t feel like I’d overcome my nerves by the time I left again!). Tomorrow afternoon, if I can shake this wretched mastitis, I’m going to Victoria Park in East London for a picnic/chinwag/couple-of-hours-of-preventing-my-son-climbing-into-the-lake-like-the-last-time-we-went-there organised by a lovely local mama with whom I share a love of leopard print and the Dalston Curve Garden, which I’m pretty sure means we are bound to be lifelong friends. Maybe one day I’ll FINALLY go along to Forest Kids Hackney, as inspired by that same local mama (though I will perhaps hold off until my son’s favourite thing to do in public isn’t to run away from me and hide), or try out one of the many new apps that launched in the last six months or so for making mama friends, like Peanut or Mush (I *think* they’re a bit like Tinder but with (I assume) much less shagging).

There are so many opportunities to meet people if you want to, but so often I find that I’m too anxious or too shy or too preoccupied with life (does anyone else spend most of their free time (“free” in the loosest sense of the term) doing laundry, ordering groceries and packing up clothes to return to online shops?!) to make the effort. I’m inherently lazy; I want the benefit of friends without having to put in the work! Clearly the answer to that is to sort out my priorities, but ugh: speaking to new people is so hard!

It’s time for another antibiotic and hopefully some sleep now, so I’m going to press post and check in the morning if writing with a fever is as productive qualitatively as well as quantitively. I suspect not, but hopefully in the meantime you can let me know if you have made new mum friends and, if so, how! (And can I come along next time?)

Where is everyone? 

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Beans on toast

I have a confession: I absolutely loathe cooking.

I love to eat – I really, really love to eat. But at the moment, my love of eating is falling second to my hatred of getting food onto my plate.

Before I had kids, this laziness was disguised by a job that kept me in the office for long hours, enabling me to justify the purchase of breakfast, lunch and often dinner five days a week, and a husband who loves to cook, enthusiastically picking up the baton at the weekends without even realising he was doing me a favour.

Now I’m at home and there’s nowhere to hide. And I am primarily responsible for ensuring the nourishment of my children (though fortunately my daughter still finds much of her sustenance from my boob). I do an ok job of making sure my son is offered a balance and range of mostly-healthy foods and he eats pretty well. Don’t get me wrong, he is apt to eat only watermelon for supper one day and declare the same watermelon “yucky” the next: he is a toddler. But generally, he eats vegetables, fruit, nuts, some white fish, meat in the form of “Daddy’s Special Bolognese” (a marketing triumph, if I do say so myself) and carbs as long as they are pasta, bread, cereal or, um, pizza. (He’s allergic to dairy, soya, eggs and peanuts so they aren’t on the menu.)

But I don’t think he is presented with a healthy picture of adult eating habits, when he spends his day with me. Often I skip lunch, or just eat his leftover veg and humous, supplemented with a million sugary snacks and cups of tea to keep me going. (My sugary snacks are generally fancy organic chocolate because I can’t eat dairy but I know I also kid myself that it would be worse, somehow, to be eating a Mars bar every day and so give myself some sort of relative kudos for my sugary snacks not being as “bad” as they could be. What a snob.) He seldom sees me eat supper: officially, because he eats at 4.30pm and it’s too early for me, unofficially because god knows what I’m going to cook and it might well be beans on toast or something from Deliveroo and it certainly isn’t going to be the same as him in the model of family eating that I actually would like him to see and absorb.

I posted recently about breastfeeding both of my children and how it suits us all at the moment. I didn’t confess a benefit of breastfeeding that I find a bit shameful and hard to admit, namely that one of the reasons I love it is that it makes me feel like I am useful. Because at times I feel like I’m pretty terrible at everything else. And nothing makes me feel more like a shit mum than my hatred of cooking. [Edited to add: I wondered about taking this paragraph out, as I think I must have been feeling a bit blue when I wrote it and, actually, I think I am a pretty good mum, most of the time. Ok, there are some definite areas for improvement. Cooking is one. Using my phone too much is another. Muttering swearwords under my breath is a third. I mean, my swearing is top notch, but my muttering needs work. I know this because my son spent the other evening before bed running madly around his bedroom, completely naked and transferring bright yellow nappy cream onto the carpet and the chair, shouting “FUCK’S SAKE! FUCK’S SAKE!” at the top of his voice. Oops. Anyway, I’ve kept this paragraph in, because I am trying to write honestly about motherhood and I don’t think I’d be doing that if I edited out all the miserable bits on a sunny day when I find myself alone in a cafe without kids, feeling fairly cheerful!]

Every now and then my guilt around the issue galvanises me into action. I read some cookbooks and blogs, I make a meal plan, I do a big online grocery shop… and sometimes I even stick with it for a week or two. But I never seem to manage to keep it up.

People often suggest easy meals that I could prepare quickly, and I appreciate the help, I do, but I’m not sure I have ever really successfully conveyed the extreme lethargy that consumes me when I stand in front of the fridge and think about having to prepare anything. I detest chopping onions, unwrapping raw meat, draining pasta, washing a lettuce, picking some fucking coriander… I hate it all. It is a visceral loathing that completely drains me of energy and initiative. And sometimes I can overcome it, my conscience stepping in and refusing to allow fresh fish to be wasted or an unexpected visitor to be fed takeaway, but it is exhausting to fight in this way and I don’t have the capacity to do it every night.

Can anyone relate to this? I feel quite ashamed to write it but I also really want to be a better example for my family and I’m not sure where to start, again. I don’t feel like guilt is the right motivation for radical change but that, to be honest, is my prevailing emotion when I think about food and cooking. Help! Is there a way to frame this more positively?

What do you mean, none of these are appropriate first foods?