Autumn resolutions

back-to-school-1622789_1920

January is never a great time of year for me – I’m not good with the cold, dark days of winter so it’s pointless me making New Year’s resolutions. In contrast, Autumn is, for me, the perfect time of year to reflect and think about the future. As a mother of three school-age children, my life is, in any case, dominated by the term time calendar, and there is something about the feeling of newness (shoes, pencil cases, planners, etc), the fresh start and the enthusiasm (yes, really, even the kids are usually excited to get back) that screams hope. Outside it’s the time of year associated with decay, when the blooms in the garden are starting to fade, the leaves on the trees begin to turn brown and fall, and the nights are definitely drawing in. In a funny way, though, I find this reassuring. It makes me feel that everything is in the right place, the natural order of things is safely on track, and that is a comfort to me in this era of accelerated climate change.

Big MagicSo, September is my month of choice for resolutions. My reading challenge this month is to read a self-help book and after a bit of indecision I’ve decided on Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s actually been on my list of books to read for some time, but seems particularly appropriate now as my main resolution is to complete at least a third of the book I am writing by half term (and hopefully another third by Christmas). I’ve been tinkering with it for months, and made some good progress with Camp NaNoWriMo in July, but I feel really focused now and am keen to capitalise on my motivation.

2017-07-26 20.42.01Before the summer break I also read WE: A Manifesto for Women Everywhere by Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadel and it caused me to reflect on the time and care I give to myself. I think it’s true to say that, as a mother, when you have young children you can often put yourself and your needs at the bottom of the priority list, well after the rest of the family. Ultimately, this often takes a great toll. Now that my children are older, (all at secondary school as of this week, my eldest now in sixth form), I find myself not so much with more time, but definitely with more mental space to tend to my own needs, pursue some of my own passions and award myself more respect. So, I am re-reading WE, slowly and deliberately, a little each day, and working through the exercises.

As a Mum I feel I have for years ricocheted between feelings of resentment at the extent of my ‘self-sacrifice’ and guilt at not doing or being enough! I hope that over the coming weeks the reading and the exercises will help to shift my mindset more towards contentment, resilience, and gratitude – the Holy Grail! I don’t find it particularly difficult to change my habits, get a better eating or fitness regime, etc, but mindset change is much harder. Wish me luck!

Are you one of those who prefer to make their resolutions in September rather than January?

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog by clicking on the button below or to the right (depending on your device).

The Top 10 things I love about Lisbon

So, our wonderful holiday in Portugal has come to an end. After a week of rest and relaxation on the Silver Coast (near Obidos) we headed for a few days in the country’s capital, Lisbon, a city I have been wanting to visit for years. It did not disappoint. More compact and lower key than some other European capitals it comes in at number nine on TripAdvisor’s top European destinations, ahead of the likes of arguably more famous places like Amsterdam, Venice, Florence and Edinburgh. Excluding our arrival and departure days, we were there for four full days, and there was far more to do than we could squeeze in. The high August temperatures (mostly exceeding 30 degrees Celsius during the day) and the peak time crowds made sightseeing more challenging than it might be at other times of the year, which perhaps slowed us up a bit. Other people (and those without kids) might be able to pack more in. We were not in a hurry (we are determined to go back again anyway!) and spent a lot of time just watching the world go by in cafes, bars and restaurants. Here are the top 10 things I love about Lisbon:

1. The views

IMGP0029

Lisbon is a city of hills. There are many opportunities to get a higher perspective of the city and the surrounding area, including plenty of  well signposted Miradouros (viewpoints).

2. Castelo de Sao Jorge

2017-08-20 13.34.46This ancient fortress up on a hill is a potted Portugese history lesson. It’s fabulous and from here you can get a panoramic view of the city. You take the antique Tram 28 to reach it. Aside from the main site I recommend the tour of the ancient archaeological area (above, where they have found evidence of habitation as far back as the Iron Age) which is generally under-attended, and is fascinating because you get to see and understand exactly how people have lived in and used the fortress over the centuries.

3. Museu de Farmacia

2017-08-22 22.01.29

Quirky museum by day, bar and restaurant by night with some fab cocktails (both with and without alcohol), imaginatively served. See above, #Elixir, #Oxymetazol, Vinho Verde (see 6), and we-won’t-rip-you-off-by-making-you-buy-bottled-water H2O (see 4).

4. It’s relatively good value

I grew up in London, but haven’t lived there for 20 years now. When I go back as a visitor I am struck by the hugely inflated prices compared to the rest of the country. Sadly, this is true of many major cities. Lisbon, indeed, Portugal as a whole, does not fleece its tourists. Long may it last. Food, drinks, travel, entry prices all seem reasonable, even in the light of Sterling’s weakness against the Euro.

5. The Waterfront

We took many an evening stroll along the waterfront, where there was a great buzz. The stunning Praca do Comercio (above right) looks majestically out over the River Tejo. It lies at the foot of the area of Chiado, the main shopping and commercial hub of the city.

6. Vinho Verde

The so-called Portugese ‘green wine’ is very drinkable indeed, and ridiculously cheap for the quality!

7. Cascais

Golden beaches are less than half an hour by train (for 2 Euro!) from the city centre. The husband took the two girls for the day and had a fantastic time. A great escape if the sightseeing is getting too much!

8. Fish

To see? At the amazing Oceanarium on the Expo site to the north of the city – did you know that a cuttlefish looked like this?

IMGP0048

To eat? Fantastic fish is served everywhere, and Mr Cuttlefish is very tasty as well as cute! Cacilhas, a suburb of the city just a short hop across the river seems to be almost entirely made up of fish restaurants.

9. Pastellaria

If you have a sweet tooth, expect to be well-supplied in Portugal. From the delicious Pastel de Natas (ubiquitous small custard tarts) to Macarons (below) you will find much to choose from in the many small cafes and bakeries serving fine coffee and cakes.

2017-08-20 18.00.00

10. The people

Portugese people are warm, kind, laid-back and welcoming. The language is very different to Spanish and most visitors will not have even a smattering of Portugese, I suspect (though it’s a fascinating language and I’m determined to learn a little before I go again). The natives don’t seem to mind, however, and most speak excellent English. Lisboans seem quietly proud of their city and so they should be. As such, they are delighted to help you and keen that you as a visitor should have a great experience in their city.

If you have been to Lisbon I would love to hear what your highlights were. 

If you have enjoyed ths post, I would love for you to follow my blog by clicking on the ‘Follow’ button below (or to the right, depending on your device).

 

 

 

On holidays in Portugal

I’m on my holidays with the family in Portugal. It’s a lovely country: the people are warm and laid-back, the food is wonderful, it’s a seafood-lover’s paradise. The weather where we are, north of Lisbon on what is known as the ‘Silver Coast’, is warm and sunny, with Atlantic breezes keeping the temperature below the more intense numbers you get on, say The Algarve – mid-30s Celsius is tough on a fair-skinned Brit! When you have to take your holidays in August (school!) you have to think carefully about where you go. It’s so much more expensive before you even arrive and popular locations can be jam-packed, unbearable with children. Our location here in Portugal feels perfect just now. 


The beach is stunning, vast and empty, and the ocean majestic, though cold even to paddle in for me and mostly too much undertow for swimming.

Since we arrived on Saturday I have finished reading The Power, the Bailey’s Prize-winning novel by Naomi Alderman. 

I wasn’t bowled over by it I’m afraid, but will post a review in a couple of weeks. 

We are staying close to the beautiful town of Obidos, which has designated itself, rather fortuitously for me, ‘City of Literature’! My book-seeking antennae were out and we found two amazing bookshops. 


The first was a secondhand bookshop that also incorporated an organic food market – what’s not to love! Look at what I picked up from the English shelf: 


Plenty of Manchester references here I expect!

The next bookshop was in a converted church and had the most amazing structure of wooden shelving which doubled as stairs and a mezzanine. 


Beautiful isn’t it?

Reading-wise I’m currently enjoying  Lisa McInnerney’s The Blood Miracles, which is so far matching the quality of her first novel The Glorious Heresies

I hope you are also enjoying the holiday season and that you’re getting plenty of R&R (reading and relaxation) in!

Reflections on being a mother of girls

My elder daughter turned 13 recently. I find this fact quite extraordinary and I am filled with a new sense of responsibility. Getting three children this far has been something of a feat, of course (!), but I now feel as if I have the huge challenge of nurturing a young woman. I have an older son, but that seems different somehow. Perhaps that’s because I have never been a young man, but I do have experience of being a young woman, so I am profoundly aware of all the special ups and downs that life can present to girls.

girl-2480361_1920
A beautiful mother and daughter (this is not us!)
My daughter is strong, talented and determined. She is also loving, conscientious and kind, and experience tells me that this can make her vulnerable. The world has yet to fully come to terms with this potent mix of feminine powers, does not yet know how best to embrace it. It seems to me the world often seems to fear it. So, as a parent, as a mother, the conundrum is how to prepare my daughter for a world that may not be fully ready to receive her for all that she is and all that she can be, whilst also fostering her single-mindedness, encouraging her independent spirit and emboldening her to stay true to herself.

I recently read We should all be feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (look out for the review next week). This was given to me by a friend as a birthday gift. It’s a fuller version of a speech the author gave to a TEDx conference in 2012. Its context is Nigerian society, but there is much here that we can all take on board in terms of how we bring up our children and the values we attempt to instil.

I have a particular conundrum in that I have for a long time been what is disparagingly termed a ‘full-time Mum’. I took the usual maternity leave with my first child (my son) and when I went back to work he went to nursery for four long days every week (we had no family nearby to support us), a fact which haunts me to this day. My job was challenging and I was 50 miles away, so it was a difficult time. When I became pregnant with my second child not only did it make little economic sense for me to continue working but I felt my higher education job was incompatible with our circumstances. There was no way I could be the kind of parent I wanted to be whilst being committed to my career, and with no back-up it seemed impossible. My husband’s job was senior, demanding and in a relatively male-dominated industry so there was little prospect, in reality, of a shared model. So when my daughter was born I took a career break. I had another child during that time and took seven years off, which ended with voluntary redundancy.

When I recount this story I find it quite hard to believe myself – I was always very ambitious, acquired a Bachelors and a Masters degree, had a good career where I was respected, have always been a feminist, and yet as far as my children are concerned Mummy stays at home. Mummy does work of course (I have run a small business, I write and I do some occasional work for a charity) but I don’t work long hours out of the house like Daddy does so the lion’s share of the household work also falls to me. I don’t feel unhappy with this and I don’t regret any of the decisions we made and if I could do it all again I would make the same choice to stop working (I only wish I’d been there for my son sooner and not put him in nursery), but I do worry about the kind of messages this sends to both my son and my daughters about gender roles. What kind of a role-model am I?

We should all be feminists and the small companion book Dear Ijeawele have given me much food for thought. One of the first suggestions in Dear Ijeawele is that a woman should be “a full person” and not be defined by motherhood. I think in the early years I allowed this to happen, although with three young children and a husband working away every week for a number of years I had little time to define myself any other way! However…that is changing now. As my children get older and can take more responsibility for themselves I am trying to strike a balance between being there for them, but also not being there always, if you see what I mean.

Suggestion number ten in Dear Ijeawele is to “be deliberate in how you engage with [your daughter] and her appearance”. Adichie is a beautiful woman who embraces her femininity. She is a face of No. 7 cosmetics, a fact for which she has been criticised and for which she makes no apology. I have always struggled with my femininity; I think it was handled clumsily and fearfully when I was a teenager (I don’t think I’m alone). Being feminine should not be incompatible with feminism, this much I believe, but I struggle with both my young daughters’ desires to wear make-up, for example. I feel very conflicted as I want them to be happy with their natural appearance, to know they are beautiful as they are, and not to feel influenced by the media that they have to look a certain way or that a certain beauty product is a ‘must-have’. I also worry about the pressure to wear revealing clothing, although, as Adichie says, we should never link appearance with morality.

With a teenage and a pre-teen daughter, these are all very urgent issues. I’m afraid when they were young they did play with dolls and much of their environment was pink, though trains, lego and other colours were available! I agree it is important not to provide gender-specific toys and to encourage breadth and variety. Mostly, my kids liked to paint, make things and play with water, and I never tried to stop the girls getting messy – they were worse in fact! But the issues seem to be weightier now, especially as their thoughts gradually turn to their futures and as sexuality begins to emerge. They hear the news and find that there continues to be a gender pay gap in society, that there is not parity of treatment between LGBTQ and straight people, and that women and girls continue to be abused and exploited more than their male counterparts.

There is much that we all still need to do.

I would love to hear your thoughts about raising girls in the 21st century. 

If you have enjoyed this post, please subscribe to my blog by clicking on the button below or to the right, depending on your device.

 

 

 

#Top Ten tips for helping your teen with English Lit

read-515531_640Many households up and down the UK will be like mine this summer – tiptoeing around a teenager revising for their exams. In my household, my eldest is doing his GCSEs so this is our first experience of exams that really matter. It’s so hard for them and as a parent there is not a great deal you can do to help – which makes it hard for us too! At 16 they need to be working out their own best revision and study methods (definitely not the same as mine!) so although my heart is desperate to ‘help’ my head tells me that I need to step back and avoid interfering. Also, many of my son’s chosen subjects are areas I know very little about – Spanish, Russian – or have limited interest in – physics, electronics – or remember very little about – mathematics! So, beyond providing encouragement, food and drink, and making sure they’re getting enough sleep, what more can you do as a parent?

One area I can help with is English literature. It also happens to be the subject in which my son has least confidence (how? why?).  It’s difficult isn’t it – I have a degree of knowledge and expertise and can geneuinely help my child, but at the same time I don’t want to undermine my son’s confidence, or indeed alienate him, by coming across as some sort of expert, or for him to feel self-conscious with me. You know how sensitive teens can be!

So, I have given a great deal of thought in recent weeks as to how I can best help my son with his English Lit revision. Here are my top ten tips:

  1. Get to know their set texts yourself – feel it with them! I have re-read Michael Frayn’s Spies and re-acquainted myself with The Merchant of Venice this year. It has been very pleasurable for me and I’m hoping that some of my enthusiasm will rub off.
  2. Get hold of an audio or video version of the books – they need to know the texts well so there is nothing to lose by watching or listening to the texts being performed or read. I got a free audiobook of Spies with an Audible trial and borrowed  a DVD of The Merchant of Venice from the library. They may well have watched DVDs at school but it will do no harm to re-watch.
  3. Discuss the texts with them – have conversations with them about the books and talk enthusiastically. They don’t have to be big set-piece conversations, you could have a 10 minute chat over dinner or in the car, which will be more memorable to your teen than a sit-down ‘session’.
  4. Read through their English notes – identify the key themes their teacher has directed them to learn about and understand these yourselves. You could also buy study notes booklets or there are various websites which give you textual study guides, such as the BBC’s GCSE Bitesize.
  5. Test them on examples from the text – it’s absolutely key that they can provide evidence for points they make – they have to illustrate with examples from the text. So, from Spies, I might ask for three examples of Keith’s controlling and bullying behaviour towards Stephen. It comes back to knowing the text really well, so if they can’t remember, re-read/listen/watch extracts to make sure they can recall the examples.
  6. Make a plan for yourself – I find that my conversations with my son are best done in shortish informal bites rather than scheduled sessions. He is more relaxed and therefore more responsive. It’s all a cunning ruse, however, because I have my own plan about what to discuss with him and when.
  7. Set questions for them – if you’re busy, work and have other children, helping your teen to revise can seem like an additional chore. So, if you find that on some days you simply don’t see them much, or there isn’t time for your revision chat, set them a question to answer. This will also give them practice in writing about their texts.
  8. Teach them how to mindmap – as a grown-up you will know how mind-mapping can be a great tool for committing things to memory or exploring an idea, even for the least visual among us. If they haven’t done mindmapping yet at school, get them a big piece of paper (flipchart or some old wallpaper) and a marker pen and do it with them. It can be done for themes as well as for plot and character (they MUST get the basics right so make sure they know all the key characters and how to spell their names correctly). Stick these on their bedroom wall, be creative, print out pictures or draw the characters, use different coloured pens.
  9. Help them to memorise quotes – it’s always useful to have a few key quotes up your sleeve so help them identify some (eg the “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech from Merchant of Venice) and test them.
  10. Finally, praise. Your job now is building confidence.

 

If you have any other tips for helping your teen with English Lit revision I’d love to hear them. In the meantime, best of luck!

If you have enjoyed this post, I’d love for you to follow my blog by clicking on the link below or to the right, depending on your device.