We’re all going on a school residential trip…

Today my elder son has gone off on his school residential trip to Newquay.  As he set off at 5.30am, I have to admit to a few pangs of anxiety but also excitement for him.  I remember only too well my first school residential trip to Streatley (although I was only 7 at the time) – we ate loads of sweets, wore our cagoules all day despite scorching sunshine and had a field trip song which we sang endlessly on our return – well, until Graham in my class swore at the familiar first strains of the song – “not that b***** song again” – overheard by the headmaster… an error that I am sure Graham has never repeated.

So back to my son’s trip.  The build-up has been going on for weeks – who’s sharing a room with whom; who’s sitting next to whom on the coach; should he buy a KFC or a McDonalds at the service station on the way down; does Lucozade count as an energy drink (banned apparently) and so it goes on.

My role, as usual, has been to ensure that he is provided with suitable clothing and footwear and to pack his Lordship’s bag for him.  I have carried out this task with my normal sunny disposition, a minimal amount of complaint – just the odd muttering under my breath.  Of course, as to be expected, my son has fully appreciated my input and has been unable to stop thanking me for all I have done.

The kit list provided by the school has though presented a few issues.  I have tried to follow the instructions to the letter and hence have packed accordingly 7 pairs of underwear and 7 pairs of socks.  I have done this in the full knowledge that 6 pairs of underwear and 6 pairs of socks will return unworn.  We were asked to pack black bin liners so that the boys can put all their dirty washing in a bag to bring home.  Well, I am fairly certain that I shall be able to use those very black bin liners for their original purpose on his return as I have placed them in a side pocket which since he suffers from that all-male congenital condition “man eyes”, he is very unlikely to see let alone open and use.  I did point the side pocket out to him and the black bin liners and he asked me to write “black bin liners” with a Sharpie on the pocket – I declined on aesthetic grounds and anyway it won’t make a blind bit of difference (I refer you back to congenital “man eyes”).

The kit list also gave rise to Deodorantgate.  I am not thanking the school for this.  The innocuous  “wash bag containing – toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo etc” has unleashed a whole new beast in our house – Lynx “Africa”.  I have so far avoided having to buy deodorant for my son – having judged it not yet necessary but since it was on the kit list my son with an uncharacteristic regard for detail and obedience told me that he had to have some.  I duly bought his first deodorant but forgot to tell him that less is more.  Consequently our house (and its occupants) are now gasping under a cloud of heady (read “headachey”) and intoxicating (read “choking”) eau d’Africa.  Personally “Africa” is not what springs to mind on inhalation unless we’re talking part-hyena with giraffe dung or something.  Anyway, teachers who were mad enough to volunteer to go on this trip with my son, beware the morning (and evening) spray – it’s powerful stuff.

As for the toothbrush and toothpaste, this has become somewhat of an obsession with me – I must have said to him at least 40 times this weekend – “don’t forget to brush your teeth” .  Who am I kidding? There is no way that toothbrush will see the light of day over the next week let alone the meet the toothpaste.  Anyway, it’s not as if my son brushes his teeth religiously when he’s home – if I’m brutally honest, despite my threats, he probably only brushes them on average 2.2 times a week.

Anyway, I hope he and his friends have a wonderful time – I know they will, the trip looks amazing.  He won’t care if he’s wearing the same underwear every day and I’m not there to care and anyway if he does, less washing on his return for me.  Silver linings….

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Sort it out…

Another year, another load of wrinkles on my face and the likelihood of me being Prime Minister is fading fast.

Fear not, just because I probably (definitely) won’t reach those dizzying heights, it does not mean that I can’t dream about what my agenda for change would be.  I’m not going to bother with all the things that really matter to people – health, education, housing etc – I’ll leave it to those in power to deal with those issues – but I shall concentrate on the rather more minor (indeed some might say irrelevant) issues which affect (annoy) me and my kin. So this is what I want sorted (said in a “Phil and Grant from EastEnders” voice):

– Store/Reward Cards:  what could possibly be wrong with them you ask?  Nothing – they’re a great idea but there are just too many of the b***** things.  My purse is unable to shut – not through any great personal wealth, just a million reward cards.  It goes one of two ways for me depending on whether there is a queue of people behind me at the till – either I have to conduct a full and thorough search of every pocket in my wallet and my handbag to locate the correct reward card (only attempted when the queue is less than 2 people) or I don’t bother looking and accept the receipt, nodding vigorously when told that I can bring the receipt with me next time and have the points added to my card then – come on, does anyone do that? Surely, in the age of phenomenal technology someone can produce one card that stores all the reward points for various shops on it. I’d have a go at creating one myself if my technological expertise extended beyond endlessly recreating new passwords for various sites for which I have forgotten the original one.

–  Self-service checkout tills:  one word – scrap! They don’t work and nowhere is this better demonstrated than in one of my local shops where the self-service checkout till is manned full-time by a member of the shop staff – self-defeating rather than self-service.  Add to this that “unknown item in the bagging area” makes me feel irrationally violent and more pre-disposed to self-harm than self-service and it seems quite clear to me that they were a crap idea (like the taxi lane on the M4) and should be quietly but swiftly removed.

– Recycling/bin collections:  I know this won’t make me popular with environmentalists but if I’m really honest I yearn for those days when I could just dump everything in one bin.  As it is, I spend (waste? bad pun) time every day debating (internal dialogue ) whether such-and-such is recyclable and if it is which particular recycling bin should it go in.  Then there is the “should I rinse it?” issue and the constant low level anxiety that you’ve got it all wrong.  As for the food waste bins, I’m sure I’m not the only one who regrets, on a twice weekly basis, overfilling the kitchen caddy and then having to transfer it to the outside bin without it splitting all over me and having to revisit all of the last week’s meals.

– Too small parking spaces: when I am out and about and not worrying about my refuse issues, this vexes me hugely.  Multi-storey car parks have become a minefield of worry and questions – “If I get into that space, will I be able to get out again?”, “If I get into that space, will I be able to get out of my car?”, “If I get into that space and out of my car, will I be able to get back in my car when I return?”, “If I get into that space, will the person parked next to me be able to get back in their car?” and so it goes on.  It’s high time that we accept that cars are bigger now and scrub out the old lines and get one of those little wheely things that draws white lines and make parking spaces bigger.

I know what you’re thinking, she’s always moaning.  What about something positive?  OK, well here we go – if I were elected to serve, then these are two programmes I would put in place for the benefit of the people of this country:  Firstly, free watches for all builders, plumbers and tradesmen with a free course on telling the time and the importance of time management.  9 o’clock means 9 o’clock not 12 o’clock or even 9 o’clock three days later.  Secondly, an admittedly niche proposal,  which came to me this morning as my daughter started back at school  – I would initiate a free hairdressing scheme for all mothers of girls for the all important “school hair-up” – how can I be expected to compete with those who spent their childhood years plaiting horses’ manes?

Right, that’s enough of power that I’ll never have.  What what your agenda be?

Those Two Old Friends – Anxiety and Fear

After Dark: Fear

After Dark: Fear (Photo credit: the_exploratorium)

Let me introduce you to two of my closest, long-standing and most loyal “friends”: fear and anxiety. We’ve been “friends” for so many years, I’ve lost count. Like all friendships we have had our ups and downs – sometimes almost unbearably close, other times we have been apart for lengthy periods of time.  In their absence, I have thrived, come out from their shadow.  As comfortable as I think I feel in their presence, fortunately I do have a wide group of other friends which counter their hold over me: humour, a sense of fun (and the ridiculous), determination and happiness.

I know there are millions of us out there who count these two amongst our nearest and (not so) dearest.  Over the years, I have come to understand that it is these two which actually allow me to experience and appreciate their opposites in sharp relief. They have certainly shaped me, but will never define me.  They have given me the ability to empathise with, sympathise with and understand others.  I am a more rounded person because of them.

Why am I telling you all this? Partly, I guess, because usually my writing is observational and light-hearted but not everything I observe is like this, life is more complicated, and partly in response to an article I read in The Times at the weekend about how you can deal with a child who worries incessantly, who is anxious, unable to relax.  Not only did I recognise myself as that child, but also similar traits in my own children – particularly my eldest.  It got me thinking…is this a trait peculiar to eldest children?  Does that burden of responsibility that the eldest feels from such an early age allow a burgeoning relationship with anxiety and fear which to different degrees stay with you through childhood and adulthood?

I am not just talking about obvious childhood fears, like monsters under the bed (although needless to say I had an veritable zoo under my bed as a child – snakes, sharks, lions, tigers – you name it, they were there – along with the whole cast of Ghostbusters).  No, I am talking about those more intangible fears – fear of failure, fear of not living up to expectation (largely self-afflicted), fear of the unknown, fear about taking risks.

In my experience, the second child, without the burden of forging the way like the eldest, feels a sense of freedom from responsibility and a freedom to take risks, throw caution to the wind, unencumbered by fear and anxiety.  This is, of course, not to say that fear and anxiety are solely the preserve of the eldest child but in my experience, the eldest is far more cautious and less willing to take risks, more concerned about failure and the “what ifs”.

It will come as no surprise then to you that I am the eldest of three children. My greatest wish for my children is that they do not allow my old “friends”, fear and anxiety, to determine their path in life. To that end, I try very hard not to allow my “friends” to stay in my house very often, especially when the kids are around.

Just because something is familiar, it does not mean it is healthy or not to be challenged.  The old adage of “familiarity breeds contempt” is certainly true as far as my old “friends” are concerned and I am finding as I get older (and wiser?) that I am moving away from this circle of “friends” and embracing my new friends – happiness, laughter and joy – much more.  Now, I’m 40, I am also ready to discover new friendships – success (as I see it) and fulfilment of potential.

I have realised over the year, that just because these two hanger-ons are familiar, that does not equate with being comfortable.  Fear and anxiety are largely self-fabricated and built on no real foundations, just years of being allowed to co-exist.  There is no real substance to them, you can just push them away if you really try. Fear and anxiety in a small measure are part of the human condition but you shouldn’t let them be your “friends”.  Real friends make you feel good about yourself, boost you, laugh with you, cry with you and support you.  Fear and anxiety are impostors – see them for what they really are.  Stand up to them and watch them fade.  Well, that’s my experience and that’s what I shall be telling my children.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Don't worry, be happy

Don’t worry, be happy (Photo credit: duncan)

If someone were to ask me what emotion, apart from love, has been a constant since you had children, I would be able to answer very quickly – worry. Of course, all the other emotions have been there to varying degrees at different times – joy, frustration, irritation, happiness – but one thing is always gnawing away – worry.  I’ll freely admit that I am one of life’s worriers – I can worry about things which wouldn’t even occur to most rational people as things you could even worry about. I am, as they say, a master at sweating the small stuff. That said, I am actually quite good in a crisis.  So by all means ask me about the big stuff but don’t ask me about the day-to-day stuff.  I am your classic over-thinker and this of course goes hand-in-hand with worry.  Although at least I can rationalise that if I am worrying over something so trivial, I really don’t have very much to worry about – if that makes sense.

Why am I wittering on about worry, you may well ask?  Well, I was thinking about the differences between child-rearing in the 60s/70s and now and as much as technology, media and scientific advances have opened up a whole new exciting world, they have also contributed to a general heightened sense of anxiety in society especially for parents.  For example, thanks to the internet, I can carry out almost every single daily activity – shopping, banking, bill-paying etc – without moving my backside from its best friend, the desk chair. However, the flip side of this is the information that is available to us at the click of a mouse. Say my child has a perfectly harmless rash, a hint of a sniffle and is a bit off his food – back in the day, our mothers would have assumed it was some non-specific virus, kept us off school for a day or two, fed us chicken soup and that staple, Calpol, and that would have been that – no worries. Nowadays, we google the symptoms (even though we know this is not a sensible course of action) and before we know it our child is suffering from some extremely rare flesh-eating virus that you can only pick up (except of course in our child’s case) from the depths of the South American jungle.  Cue – worry. Our mothers only had Dr Benjamin Spock for advice, we have every Tom, Dick and Harry claiming to be medical experts, diagnosing us and our children with things our parents never knew existed.

Every day the media is bombarding us with stories about this and that potential danger. We trust no-one.  We take no risks.  We are obsessed with “health and safety”.  Of course, awful things happen but awful things happened back in the day too.  It’s just that we are so well-informed now, over-informed some might say, and I’m not convinced this is a good or helpful thing.  To my mind, it is being so well-informed that has led to low level anxiety permeating society and nowhere is this more apparent than parenting.

Do you think our mothers worried endlessly about giving us fish fingers, spaghetti hoops and Angel Delight and what the long-term impact would be on our health.  No, they didn’t because they were none the wiser.  I’m not saying a diet that solely consists of the above is ideal nor am I saying before you all get concerned that this is what I feed my children (not every day, at least) but now everything we do or say is so wrapped up in worry and guilt about the long-term impact that it is easy to lose sight of what is really important – just trying to be a good parent who amongst all this media bombardment is still able to relax and enjoy being a parent.

Parents worry endlessly about whether their child is “normal”.  What is “normal”?  I don’t really know except I suspect that I am far from it – something which has been confirmed to me on many occasions by various members of the medical establishment. Our schools are constantly measuring and comparing our children to such an extent that it is easy to forget to embrace each child’s individuality and to accept that you really can’t be good at everything all of the time. Take me and sewing for example – useless is the only word to describe it and back in the day, I’m fairly sure that that is exactly how my teacher described it (this, of course, would never happen in today’s hypersensitive, politically correct environment) – so, I am needle-challenged or whatever. Does this bother me? Did this bother my mother?  Did she worry that perhaps this was a reflection of underdeveloped fine motor skills?  No, of course not, she was probably just annoyed that I got thrown out of the lessons for good after breaking the sewing machine three times in one lesson, before I had completed my very 80s Laura Ashley gathered skirt (the material for which she had bought). Take ballet for example, one of my younger sisters was a very talented dancer, I have two left feet.  Did my mother add my sewing ineptitude to my ballet ineptitude and decide I had real problems?  No, of course, not – that’s just me.  Nowadays, you could probably google those two things and come up with some condition – cue, worry. Before anyone accuses me of trivialising real issues, I am not doing this at all.  Of course there are many children with very genuine issues and concerns for their parents.  I am talking about non-issues, non-worries that we are so susceptible to now in our hyper-vigilant environment.  All too often these non-worries  are just muddying the waters of clear, rational thought and making it more and more difficult to ascertain what is a real issue and what is over-thinking, over-informing, over-speculating.

Of course our parents worried about lots of things – worry is part of the human condition – but I do think that there is a low level anxiety in society now that wasn’t there before and I worry (there I go again!) that this can only increase as we become more and more media and technology savvy.  What’s the answer?  I’ve no idea and I don’t have time to worry about it unduly – too many other things to worry about.  I’m just saying…