Friday, January 30, 2009

Tag - you're it

Oh bloody nora. I have been putting off writing this post since being (so kindly) tagged by More than just a Mother on the photo challenge. It goes like this: 1. Go to the 4th folder in your photo file. 2. Pick the 4th photo. 3. Write a post about randomly selected photo. 4. Pass it on and tag someone else.

So here we are. Cute pic, eh? Except I have a huge admission to make. Despite being a huge conformist and rule follower, I admit that this is not the 4th photo from the 4th folder. Oh God. Am I now going to be banned from my lovely blogging community for a blatant disregard for the rules? I do appreciate that there is little point in having the challenge if the rules are so flagrantly I apologise. But hear me out. The actual photo would have been a dark close up of a damp and ruined cardboard box damaged in a basement flood eons ago. And try as I might over the past few days, I simply couldn't think of one damn entertaining or interesting anecdote to write about the damp box debacle. I didn't take the photo (taken by my ex for insurance purposes I presume) and, not being particularly inspired by the episode then, I am spectacularly uninspired by it now.

So instead I counted to the 4th folder backwards and voila! Here is a cute pic of Son 1 (henceforth referred to as Captain Underpants) about to poke quite gingerly a baby American Hedgehog.

You might not have been aware of this, but baby American hedgehogs are one of the cutest little animals to inhabit this planet. We have more photos of this hedgehog than I care to admit, all taken at a children's party that Captain Underpants was invited to last summer. This was the best children's party I have ever attended. The mum of the birthday child is a dolphin trainer at the city's acquarium (what a cool job - tho the idea of spending my days in a full length skin tight wet suit and having my hands permanantly reek of fish is a little off-putting). That fact is totally irrelevant but it just pleases me to know that I have a mum acquaintance with such an interesting job - as if that makes me all the more interesting by default. I digress.

The party took place at their house and featured the travelling Chicago Zoo. Now I am not a big fan of zoos but luuuurrrvve animals and was far more excited than Captain Underpants at receiving an invitation. (He would much rather have been leaping around on a giant inflatable for 2 hours play fighting with all his boy chums - which does have its advantages in the after party wear out factor.) This party was a little different. All the kids sat in a circle on the floor and then a variety of different animals were brought in for the kids to see and touch. I tried to wrangle a space in the circle by apologetically explaining that Captain Underpants was too nervous to participate without me by his side. And very nearly succeeded - except I was instructed by the bold and courageous Captain Underpants to retreat to the sofa with all the other mums because, honestly, he was fine. Grrrr. Selfish plan foiled. I'm pretty sure Son 2 (Johnny Drama) being only 3 would have let me. I was sorry that I hadn't brought him along.

I did manage to energetically lunge from the sofa on occasion and, without taking out anyone's eye with my elbow, touch some of the cuddlier animals being passed around. There were chinchillas, sloths (!), turtles and tortoises, baby chipmunks (not the singing cartoon variety - huge sigh of relief), ferrets, bearded dragons (big lizard thingy), an owl, a huge snake, a massive parrot (I kept well away from that one and retreated to the kitchen to steal a birthday cupcake...the memory of having my finger almost amputated by an aggressive one eyed parrot at Parrot Kingdom when I was 11 is still too fresh and painful). And of course, my favourite the little hedgihogs.

Rather selfishly I would love to host this type of birthday party for either Captain Underpants or Johnny Drama - but neither of them are remotely interested, which strikes me as just a little selfish on their part really. After all I do for them...

In the meantime, I live in hope that one day my very own family of hedgehogs will find its way up onto my 20ft high deck and take up residence. Slightly unrealistic maybe but never let it be said that I am not a woman with big dreams.

So now I pass on the moniker to 2 more new bloggers -your turn to take up the photo challenge laydeez: Soapbox Mummy and Life In the One Percent ... Tag! You're it.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Like Mother Like Daughter...

I'm having a bad day. A very definitely glass half empty day. No room for amusing anecdotes in my brain - it's too busy pondering how I spent my whole life specifically avoiding making the same mistakes as my mum and have ended up replaying parts of her life, just in a different generation.

Don't get me wrong. My mum is a wonderful woman. Warm, funny, vivacious and loving to a fault. But my God, has she made some severe errors in judgement during her life. I should know. After all, I'm the one repeating them.

I have tried so hard to avoid being in her position. I worked really hard for 18 years and earnt more money than I wish to calculate because that will only cause me to go and stick my head in the oven with the gas on high (actually it's electric, so my head would just be cooked and not gassed which I am guessing is a much more painful way to go). I chose my partners carefully for both their loving natures and generosity in all things. I waited until I was older to have kids, to be sure I was with the right person and be totally confident we would spend the rest of our lives together as a family. So how is it that I am going to be 42 in April (sharp intake of breath...FORTY TWO!!! How in hell did that happen for starters?) and am again alone, with absolutely no money, no tangible assets and a pitiful income that I may as well be paid in shirt buttons for all that it affords me?

I am mystified as to how I allowed this to happen. Created this situation of financial and emotional frailty for myself. Being back at the bottom of the ladder is terrifying and it's hard not to dwell on the multiple mistakes I have made that have led to this point, rather than the potential solutions that might lead me out of it.

I'm not very good at being vulnerable - which is probably why I have made all these mistakes in the first place. Just so that I get to experience it now on such a grand scale. A cosmic alignment of energy which ultimately creates that which you fear the most. Not that I am blaming my mistakes on the stars (tho it would be nice).

I know this situation won't last forever - I will get back on my feet, after all the only way is up. And I am so lucky in so many ways. I have 2 fabulous boys. And amazingly supportive family and friends whom I love deeply and unconditionally. We still have a roof over our head. Thanks to my ex-husbands good income and ongoing contribution I can still pay the bills. For heaven's sake, we still have cable and I buy strawberries out of season. I know things aren't that bad. But they need to be better. I need to be better.

For an over achiever, this is a hard admission to make but I didn't think I would get to my 40s and still be such an extreme case of work-in-progress. But as my mum would say, God bless her, 'look on the bright side'. And that really is what I am able to do most days. Just not today.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Gissa Hug

To say I am desperate for a little adult affection is a little extreme. But how else can I explain my willingness to participate in a Free Hug event in the centre of Chicago?

I heard of the event in passing late on a Saturday afternoon and before I knew it I had volunteered to be a Hugeee the following day. Oh this will be fun, I thought. Better than sitting at home on my own, with my feet up eating biscuits all day (although on reflection the sofa/biscuit combo has a lot going for it).

By the following morning my enthusiasm was waning a little. It was cold. I had lots of stuff to watch on the tele. The biscuit tin was full of tempting morsels calling my name. And I wasn't feeling in the best of moods and particularly desiring affection from complete strangers. But I had volunteered and felt it would be churlish not to show up. So off I traipsed into town. All the way there I kept ignoring the little voice in my head saying, 'why are you doing this exactly? no one will mind if you don't show up. you're probably going to have to hug a lot of wierdos.' I furtively slunk up to the meeting point to see who else was there and my stomach sunk a little when I saw the sad little group of misfits gamely holding 'Free Hugs' banners. Oh no.

I hotfooted it into Borders before anyone saw me and reconsidered my options. Could I really do this? I was going to look like a real wally and feel like a total prat. I wasn't sure I wanted the strangers I would be approaching to think I was part of this motley crew. Maybe there was a banner that read 'I'm not really with these saddos, but you can give me a hug anyway if you really have to'.

I debated my options for about 15 minutes, whilst diligently reading the latest overpriced copy of Hello! magazine, before finally coming to the conclusion that Sod It, looking like a wally and feeling a total prat would not be a new experience on.

I walked swiftly over to the ensemble before I could change my mind - hugged everyone there (it seemed the only appropriate thing to do and really, they needed the practice because it wasn't as if free hugs appeared to be in high demand from what I had witnessed). I picked up my Free Hug banner and joined the end of the line.

And then I just stood there. Holding my banner as if it was a shield to protect me from unwanted physical contact and with a face that said quite plainly, 'don't even think about it'. That first 10 minutes were probably the most uncomfortable I had ever felt in my life. People scuttled past us, eyes to the ground, as if avoiding a group of lepers who could infect them by eye contact alone. Some people actually increased their Sunday stroll into a slight jog to get past us quicker. I saw others actively cross the street to avoid us. I continued to stand there, feeling like a prize pillock, absolutely mortified that, not only had I entertained such a ridiculous idea, but had the stupidity to impulsively volunteer, followed by the madness to actually show up. This is a sad reflection of my lonely little life, I thought.

And then a group of young college students turned up. And all of a sudden there were hugs being exchanged in wild abandon - coupled with laughter and giggles and photos. Our little spot on Michigan Avenue had become a mini party and the whole mood changed.

From that moment on I became a woman possessed. I was determined that no one was going to escape getting a hug from me, even if they were practically sprinting away in the opposite direction screaming 'No! Just leave me alone you demented English freak'. I put on my best barrow boy voice and held my arms open wide - demanding eye contact with even the most nervous and evasive passer-by - shouting 'Git your free 'ugs ' time only. C'mon - get warm with a free hug. No purchase necessary. Don't be shy luv - you know you want to!'

We drew quite the crowd. And lots of people hugged. Most people laughed (some of them just at us - but others seemed genuinely cheered). And other, very kind and generous souls, bought us hot chocolate and biscuits for our efforts. It was the most fun 2 hours I have had in a long time (not that that's really saying anything - it's been a spectacularly miserable past 12 months) and an opportunity I would repeat in a heart beat.

The downside of this success is that I now have to wear a home-made badge at all times stating clearly 'Beware - Hugger on the loose'. It helps to keep me out of trouble when I exhibit over-friendly behaviour at the supermarket, because a smile just doesn't seem to do justice any more when someone kindly packs my bags for me...

Monday, January 26, 2009

Brass Monkeys

Now living in Chicago - and even 4,000 miles from everyone - can have its advantages. However, having to live through a Chicago winter year after year is not one of them. It is so cold. And dry. It's hard to feel like a vibrant woman in the prime of her life when you have scales instead of skin for 5 months of the year. Most of the time it brings a wry smile to my lips when I hear friends and family in the UK complaining 'ooh, it was really cold today'. Oh really? What, a couple of degrees below zero? I agree that's a little nippy. But I guess as we have had several days already this winter that are 20-30 degrees below zero, it is hard to sympathise. And much more fulfilling to scream internally, 'COLD? COLD?? YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT COLD IS, SUNSHINE!'

I don't think the weather actually bothered me that much before I had the kids. Nowadays just the additional time it takes to dress them up as mini Pillsbury Dough Boys is enough to make me lose the will to live. And it's hard for kids so little to take any pleasure from being outside when there is a wind chill of -35. And who can blame them? Given the choice I would simply hibernate from December to April, sit on the sofa wrapped in a blankie, watch movies, eat biscuits and gain 20lbs that I regret with a vengeance when summer finally rolls around and the quilted fashion mode of winter is replaced with the Chicago staple (and no one's friend when you're passed 18) shorts.

And while we're on the subject of winter, I just have a few words to say about, no and no. No, it is not magical. No, it isn't fun and No, it should never be more than 2-3 inches and last more than a week. I have come to the conclusion that proper snow fall should only be allowed in areas where there are mountains and you can spend your weekend falling over a lot on skis. What is the point of all this snow in Chicago, I muse? It's so flat that even finding a slope decent enough for toddlers to sled down is challenging. Mind you, it does bring a new element of risk to even the most mundane task when each dump of snow has frozen solid and you have to negotiate 3ft ice drifts with a wobbly Pillsbury Dough Boy in each hand and only a pair of Uggs to keep you steady, just to get you all to your car in the morning.

I really used to love the snow actually. But I'm over it now. I think a copy of the email that I sent to friends in December explains quite clearly what finally broke the camel's back. And just for those that missed it the first time around, here's a brief reminder of that fateful day...

"Anyone have directions to the nearests loony bin....preferably with a padded room spa?

I need to check myself in for a quick stay. Probably until the first daffodil buds...which in the case of Chicago will be around May.

Have just lost all sanity during a 5 hour school run due to being stuck in a snow storm. Set off at 2pm. Arrived home at 7pm. Both kids still alive (and fairly chirpy). Their mother....less so.

I'm not sure what it was that finally broke my tenous thread of sanity. The journey started off well enough - with mummy wearing her Children's Entertainer hat with pride and a certain aplomb. Maybe it was the game of I Spy. I spy something beginning with 's' - SNOW! I spy something beginning with 'c' - CAR! I spy something beginning with.....yes, you've guessed it....'s'. Repeat for the first 2 hours of the journey. At least Son 2 added an element of surprise to the game, not quite understanding the rules or in fact the alphabet. His turn always started off the same. I spy something beginning with 't' 'g'. Any guesses? It doesn't matter. It could have been anything. Well, apart from anything that began with an actual 't' or a 'g'.

Maybe it was the game of Simon Says. Again, the rules were lost on some of the participants (ie both kids) and really there is only so much you can do when you are strapped in a 4x6ft space before the game degenerates into Simon Says....pick your nose! Simon Says....grab your penis! Simon your boogers! (yes, yes I know, quite the Americans I am raising).

I think the straw that finally broke the camels back was the 3 solid hours of children's stories and children's songs - selected from the more dubious collection housed on my iPod. Now, 20-30 mins of Justin Roberts or Ralph's World I can just about handle. In fact, I have been known to arrive at work still singing tunelessly along when there has not been a child in the car with me for the past half an hour or so. But 3 hours of the cheesiest songs and rhymes sung by those sickeningly sweet children's choirs or - worse - the adult ones, would be enough to put any sane adult over the edge.

So anyway. Gonna start checking out rehabilitation centres before this tick on my eye worsens to a point where I can't read the computer screen and the twitch from my elbow to my fingers prevents me from calling to make all arrangements."

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Mother's Intuition

I was a really great mum. Until I had kids.

I never thought that I had a romanticised view of parenthood - I always understood that it was going to be bloody hard work, but assumed it would be in the most rewarding way. I thought that it would come as second nature and that, like most other things I had done in my life, I would be pretty good at it.

So it came as a huge shock to discover, once I became a mother, that I had absolutely no talent for it whatsoever.

I had spent 18 years working in marketing and advertising and had dealt with my fair share of petulant creatives frequently throwing toys out of prams and clients with personalities that would make any boot sargeant crumble. I excelled in managing teams of people, delivering work within both jaw-dropping and ludicrously penny-pinching budgets plus achievable and absolutely what-the-hell-are-you-thinking impossible deadlines.

And as intelligent as I was (note the past tense - ha!) I was still living with the assumption that motherhood would be a doddle compared to all that. How hard could looking after one baby be? After all my years of hard grafting I felt entitled to take the opportunity to start living the life of reilly as a stay-at-home mum. Yeah. Right.

My introduction to motherhood was not your typical 9 months of swelling, bloating, indigestion and nesting. After just 22+ weeks of the easiest pg I went into labour and delivered our first son, who lived for approximately 47 minutes (but who's counting). However, that's another story.

My second pg was not quite so textbook - involving complete bedrest from 3 months onwards, which I glibly assumed was going to be the biggest challenge that I ever faced in life. Sitting still was not something that I had ever excelled at - but I was prepared to do whatever it takes and, like most things in life that I put my mind to, I actually became quite good at that as well. Son 1 was born 10 weeks early after several false alarms and regular stays in the delivery ward. To have a son perfectly healthy and 100% alive, albeit a little bit on the small size, was an incredible relief and I was overwhelmed with happiness. I had a baby. And I was overjoyed and couldn't wait for the time that we could take him home and I could begin my new vocation in life.

After 4 weeks in special care Son 1 reached his 4lb target weight and we were given clearance to take him home. What should have been a day of celebration was simply a day of maximum trepidation. Now I know many new parents have the same fears and feel completely ill-equipped to face the task inhand of caring for a newborn without someone being there 24/7 who actually knows what they are doing. I knew without a doubt that that person was not me. And certainly not my husband. Son 1 had been tenderly cared for night and day by a team of the most experienced and caring nurses you could ever hope to encounter. He had been attached to three machines that all regularly went beep, telling us that yes, he was still alive and not only that but his heart rate was X, his blood oxygenation was Y and his breaths per minute were Z.

He was attached to the machines until half an hour before we took him home and the sudden silence was deafening. I kept looking at him closely and wondered, how on earth am I going to know he is okay without all the beeps?

The first few weeks at home were stressful, but from the other mums I talked to that seemed par for the course. So I assumed everything would get better. I would suddenly develop a sense of parenting intuition that was simply taking its time to kick in and Son 1 would settle down and all would be hunky dory. That wasn't really the case. The weeks stretched into months and I still felt no more equipped than the day we left hospital. Son 1 was gorgeous and I never doubted my love for him - but I was, in all honesty, absolutely terrified of him. Every morning when my husband left the house to go to work it was all I could do not to attach myself to his ankles screaming 'PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE DON'T LEAVE ME ALONE WITH THIS BABY!!'

I read every parenting manual published (bad idea - not to be recommended) and had a textbook answer for every situation. But when Son 1 didn't respond to my textbook sourced solutions I was fraught. I spent most of my days feeling a failure and a fraud. I hated myself for being so crap at something that was meant to be one of the most natural things in the world. And I knew without a doubt that the fact that I was constantly so on edge was causing my baby to be even more miserable and inconsolable - it was a vicious circle that I had no idea how to break.

Until one night when Son 1 was crying for seemingly no reason and I was attempting to cuddle and console him without success. As had become the pattern, he screamed in his cot but it seemed the crying got louder and he became even more hysterical when I held him. I walked and patted. I swayed and rocked. The decibels increased and I could feel the tension and absolute desperation welling in my chest. 'I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU WANT' I screamed. 'TELL ME WHAT YOU NEED - JUST TELL ME! I'LL DO ANYTHING'.

The screams got louder and he arched away from me, pushing me with his little fists and kicking his feet. Oh my God. This poor child. What on earth had he done to deserve someone who didn't seem to have a single mothering gene in her body? I suddenly felt completely deflated and incredibly sad. My love for Son 1 felt overwhelming and I collapsed into the rocking chair with tears streaming down my face. I am so sorry, I whispered. So, so sorry. You deserve so much better. I love you so much. I love you. I love you. I love you.

As I repeated my mantra into the top of his downy head, tears dripping onto his fine baby hair, Son 1 suddenly relaxed completely in my arms and nestled his head into that sweet place in the crook of my neck. I continued to rock and tell him that I loved him. I felt it radiating from my chest through us both and intense calm overtook me for the first time in months. I sat and savoured the moment. Maybe, just maybe, I did have some mothering intuition after all.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

PT Cruiser Baby!

I continue to find it a source of amusement (and relief) at how easily pleased I am these days and how the littlest things can provoke stomach churning excitment and cause my feet to do their little happy dance.

Like this blog for example. I could not sleep last night from the high of both creating a blog and publishing a posting - albeit just for my sister, my friend and one of my favourite bloggers to read. I could feel my heart palpitating, hear the blood rushing through my ears and there was a little happy party going on in my head all night long. Boy, do I need to get a life. Or a proper money-earning job with recognition. Or a man. Preferably all three.

The past few months I have been so focused on simple survival. Getting through the days relatively unscathed while my husband and I dismantle our family and go our separate ways. Of course, our timing was impeccable. Sell the house, make the big break (after nearly 3 years of hanging-on-in-there and trying to make a go of it) and then be hit first with Thanksgiving and then with Christmas. And only each other - and the boys of course - for company. That's the big down fall of living 4,000 miles from our family and friends - no-one available to dilute these 'magical family holidays'. Yep. No reasons there that I can think of for even an inkling of a happy dance.

So starting a blog felt like a major achievement. Not quite climbing Everest or running the Boston Marathon in under 3 hours, but definitely up there.

And the other reason for my happy dance in the past couple of days is attributed to my love-hate relationship with my car The Beast (aka The Money Pit aka F*%$ing car). The Beast has been nothing but trouble ever since it was purchased in good faith 2 years ago. I thought I was making such a sensible financial decision. And The Beast has been doing its damnest to prove me wrong ever since. So it's back in the garage for yet more repairs and I went to collect my rental car to find, joy of joys, it's a PT Cruiser!!! Now to most people this may not seem like an obvious reason to do a happy dance...but I am obviously not most people.

I love PT Cruisers!

I fell in love with them when we first moved to Chicago 8 years ago. They seemed quirky and retro and unlike any other car I had seen and I thought they were the bees knees. So unlike The Beasts that everyone was driving - a completely unique car on American roads. And they were so rare. Like spotting an elusive humming bird or kingfisher, everytime I saw one an involuntary and, I admit it, irritating 'PT Cruiser Baby!' cry would escape my lips. I was like a woman obsessed.

So I was quite frankly delighted when the guy from the car rental company apologetically guided me to the little black car of my dreams right at the back of the lot. I think he was a little confused by my obvious glee and quickly made the assumption he was dealing with someone a few sandwiches short of a picnic (no flies on him then). But what did I care? I had achieved a long-term dream (which I suppose only goes to show you really do have to be careful what you wish for - maybe I should have been focusing my attention a little more carefully on a Ferrari, say, or at the very least a Porshe).

So now I am whizzing around the city in my little rental, happy as a pig in doo-doo. It's so nippy! It's so low to the ground! And I drove it round all day and the petrol guage didn't even move a smidge. On similar days with The Beast I would have been at least half a tank of petrol down and would start the ignition the next morning only to find the greedy so-and-so had guzzled another quarter of a tank of petrol overnight whilst parked.

Sad to say, I feel like someone with character and style and panache.

So nice to finally reach a point where I get such happiness from the silliest things in life...and about time too.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


So I had a revelation this morning. It appears to have slipped my memory exactly how this could have happened (but there really is no other rational explanation) - at some point approximately 6 years ago and then again 2 years later I had sex with a rooster. Must have been all that keeping-my-eyes-closed-in-the-moment and fantasising about Russell Crowe that did it. Somehow a rooster took that opportunity to break into our house, creep into my bedroom, switch places with my husband and fertilise my waiting egg...

How else can you explain the fact that I have given birth to, not one, but two children who automatically wake and start their day (usually just as noisily as a cockeral but mostly louder) at 5am?

Of course when son 1 was a baby I, somewhat naively it turns out, thought it was just a phase. A baby phase. This will pass I confidently told myself - whilst I diligently read every sleep manual and instruction book I could lay my hands on and became known in local circles as the Nap Nazi.

It's now 5 years and countless early, early mornings later and the only thing that has changed is that I now get my alarm call in stereo rather than mono. Not progress. And hardly a phase.

I have, of course, tried a variety of recommended solutions and (with the assistance of a very helpful sleep clinic) spent a fairly large amount of cash, trying to reclaim that extra hour in the morning that is proving to be essential in my survival as a fairly sane human being. I have cupboards full of 'sleep rules', reward charts, homeopathic remedies, supernanny style incentive gimmicks (including medals, little fake 'winner' cups and even a set of jacks to collect) and of course stickers galore. I have used a combination of stairgates strategically placed in bedroom doorways, removed light bulbs from bedrooms and worn ear plugs. I have bought the recommended Bunny clock and altered the time of every clock in the house. But to no avail. These budding little roosters of mine are stubbornly refusing to even try to re-educate their circadian rhythm (told you I was an expert) and I know there is only one solution left that I have yet to try.

Re-educate mine.

I am, quite frankly, a little frustrated but also impressed with my body's continued and stubborn reluctance to spring to life at 5am. You would think, after 5+ years of being woken at this time that I would have adjusted by now and be taking the opportunity to greet the sunrise each day with some meditation or maybe a little yoga. Take some time to create a positive mindset for the day maybe. For goodness sake, I could spend that extra hour just devouring the books that I am too tired to read for more than 10 minutes at night.

But no. It appears that my circadian rhythm is just as stubborn as my sons - and despite all encouragement from whatever side of my brain is Ms. Logic, is clinging on to the intention of an extra hour of shut eye with 100% commitment.

Odd really. Because before kids I would have labeled myself a morning person. Was frequently at the gym by 6.30am before work. Never lay-in beyond 9am at the weekend because I didn't want to 'waste the day'. What was I thinking??? Wasting all those potentially precious sleeping hours with waking hours? This is obviously someone's hilarious idea of payback time.

Oh well. On the bright side at least I can never complain of not having enough time to get them both ready for school in the morning. And, as my sleep clinic advisor so kindly pointed out, these kids could be earning fortunes as early morning dj's/TV presenters in the years to come...