Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Brighter than the Sun

It has been ten months and five days since I got married.

Somehow I have let that time go by without writing about the wedding. I wrote a post about the night before the night before my wedding, promising that it would be the only post I'd ever write about it. I was wary of being boring, of parading my wedding in front of everyone's faces as though they should care.

Since then, though, a couple of things have happened. Firstly- I had a truly lovely reaction to the one post I did write about the upcoming wedding, and a few readers did comment that they hoped I would write at least one post about the day. Secondly- I realised that I love reading about, hearing about, and seeing pictures of other people's weddings.

So here's your warning: this post is for a very specific type of person; one who enjoys hearing about other people's weddings. If that sounds boring to you, this post is not for you. Please return to scrolling and tagging (and let me know if you have any ideas about what I can write that will interest you! Always open to suggestions.)

Finally, I realised that since becoming a mum I have lost my ability to remember things. (I had a total freak out a few weeks ago about a family member's name. It just didn't look right on the card and I was terrified I'd send it and they'd wonder why on earth I'd got their name wrong. Mortifying.) So I thought that if it turns out I'm the only person who likes reading about weddings then at least I'll enjoy reading it back in the future, and hopefully it'll help me preserve some of the finer details that may eventually escape me.

Dale and I got married on Monday 26th June 2017. (I'm hoping he'll read this and perhaps use it as a reference for our anniversary. He's asked me at least three times if I have any idea why he's got the date booked off work this year.)

The Venue

We were set on having a small, laidback, fun wedding that people didn't need to stress about and that really had very little feeling of formal about it.

I'm not the greatest with formal occasions, I'm not in any way fancy, I don't love a high heel and don't get me started on those teeny posh portions of food.

(Plus Dale hates a fascinator. He honestly feels passionately about very little, and I can only recall seeing him truly angry twice in our five years together. But mention a fascinator and smoke starts pumping out of his ears and his eyes roll back in his head. Seriously.)

When I explained to people that we were looking for a highly relaxed, easy going day without anything too fancy quite a few mentioned that we should have a look at West Street Vineyard in Coggeshall.


We saw it, we loved it, and I wish I could say we booked it here because that would flow beautifully. We didn't. It all seemed a bit too easy and we wondered whether we just loved it because it was the first one we'd seen. (Something I did when we were first looking at flats together and naming our baby. Fortunately Dale was there to rein me in. I more or less wailed 'Oh look, her name's Alex!' as the umbilical cord was cut. An Alex she is not.)

So we viewed a more posh place just to put our minds at ease. (And by we, I mean me and my friend Dumbo went and reported back to Dale.)

It was lovely, truly. And I do totally understand people having grand weddings in fancy pants places. We were shown around by the most immaculate human being I have ever met. Her name was Juliet. She spoke in hushed tones as she showed us the honeymoon suite, and in a suitably romantic voice the rest of the way around. Pressed skirt suit. Blonde hair in a perfect knot at the nape of her neck. Perfectly applied lipstick that didn't budge as she sipped her tea. I was ready to book it just so that I could say that she planned my wedding. I know it would have been perfect if she had.

But there was no flexibility.

There were three packages. You chose one. Juliet put it on for you.

Whereas the dream at West Street was that they're not a wedding venue. They're a vineyard. And they happen to hold weddings. There are no packages, no pre-set plans.

Whatever you want.

My little dream.

The Morning of the Big Day 

On the morning of the wedding I woke up at 7am, feeling like I'd had seventeen coffees and a couple of gins, and cleaned the entire flat. No idea why. It wasn't on any of the itineraries that I'd printed and stuck up in every room. It's what I do when I'm jittery, I suppose.

My mum had stayed the night before and my friends arrived at 10am. (They threw confetti over me and shouted congratulations as I opened the door. Sounds like a little thing but it was so magical.) Much to my delight the sun was out with its fascinator already sparkling on its bright little head, so we all walked over to Bill's where we sat outside for breakfast (that's my favourite restaurant, not one of the characters in my life), and they gave us a courtesy bottle of prosecco to say congratulations. (Again, a little thing. But those little sprinkles of magic really do make a difference.)

 The Look 

I had my makeup done by Carla from TeamGlam. She had done my makeup when I was a bridesmaid for Minnie Mouse and I knew I could have absolute faith that if I woke up looking tired/having a bad skin day/had chicken pox she would make me look the absolute best I possibly could. She's nothing short of a miracle worker and she's just so nice. (At one point she was on her hands and knees under my dress doing my shoes up. I'm fairly sure that's not in her job description. She's just amazing. I vaguely recall her painting my mum's nails as well. I may have made that bit up.)

My hairdresser Jade at Rush in Chelmsford did my hair and my mum's (she did a super job as always), and my nails were done by Nail Envy Radlett (who also always does a super job and never charges me enough.)

We had Emma from In A Flash photography take our beautiful photos. Emma also kept a couple of participants in our wedding who shall not be named in check and for that I shall forever be grateful. She was a real voice for me (I'm a people pleaser and would have let all sorts happen but she was wonderful and made sure everything went my way)- what a star.

The details of my dress shall forever remain a secret but the style inspiration came from my wonderful day on Say Yes to the Dress. Highly recommend applying to go on it if you're looking for your wedding dress. Absolutely brilliant. (And sure, watch my episode. I've watched it now, I'm not embarrassed. My Essex accent is ever so slightly stronger than I had realised but otherwise it's quite a good watch.)

On my feet I wore flat sandals from Accessorize. They were a little dream. I like to think that if I was Beyoncé I'd still have worn those shoes. No chance of falling up the aisle (or during the conga) and I managed to keep them on all night.

The Wedding Party

We had such a small wedding that every single guest was a member of the wedding party. We chose to have no top table, no best man, no adult bridesmaids, no evening guests. There were fifty five of us altogether. Dale's five year old niece was a bridesmaid, and his nephews, aged seven and two, were the ring bearers. My brother Mowgli was an usher, Chip did a reading with Dale's sister, and my Dad and Uncle did speeches. Our mums were our witnesses.

The Theme

Our theme was Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Having met in the UK pavilion at Epcot in Walt Disney World we wanted it to be British and Disney themed, so we decided to go for a mash up of the two stories. It was (of course) sophisticated, subtle Disney- I think sometimes when I say we had a Disney themed wedding people immediately picture a nightmare from Don't Tell The Bride. It wasn't. It was beautiful. 

We were lucky enough to have the most incredible florist, Adele Hudgell, who just could not do enough for us and somehow, despite my distinct lack of knowledge about flowers and truly poor attempts at describing what I wanted, she had exactly the same vision of elegant, understated Disney, and she did the most amazing job. 

(Apart from being an incredible florist, Adele is the actual and literal definition of loveliness. So much so, in fact, that when another friend was telling me about her wedding and said 'our florist is the nicest person I've ever met'- that's all she said, nothing about location, name, experience, nothing- I said 'no way have you got Adele?') 

We did a lot of themed stuff ourselves (sweetie bag favours, table plan display, themed items to go on tables) but were lucky enough to bag two wonderful cake makers to make more of my imagination become reality. Sarah Underwood (who is also my best pal) did our Peter Pan cake, and Debbie at Dinkylicious Cakes made our Alice one. They were both delicious (we had our official honeymoon before the wedding so the majority of our post-wedding honeymoon was spent eating cake) and looked amazing. 

The Big Moment 

Having spent the entire journey from Chelmsford to Coggeshall taking selfies with my Dad and just unable to believe that the bride smiling back was me, we drove up and down the road quite a few times because, according to the venue our guests were not behaving (I never got to the bottom of what that meant but I did see two pals running up the road toward the vineyard on our third round trip so my guess is that what they meant by that is they're not all here.)

I had my getting out of the car photos and was ushered inside the restaurant and upstairs to confirm that I was definitely up for being Mrs Stark and that I really was 28 (took quite a lot of joy from the fact that the registrar just couldn't believe I was so old).

I feel quite choked up thinking about the next bit. Which is ridiculous because at the time I wasn't choked up at all.

My Dad and I practised walking around the room a bit (still convinced I was going to fall over) then the venue manager came in and told me it was time to go. 

I should say here that there were so many maybes about this day. In my determination not to get caught up in the details that couldn't be controlled I had barely even dared to imagine everything going as it should. 

I had really, really wanted our friend Gloria to sing as I walked down the aisle. She is easily the most talented singer I've ever met in real life and the thought of having someone as incredible as that at my wedding just seemed too good to be true. 

But Dale asked. She said yes. 

Then we had such a nightmare getting the correct equipment, getting the equipment insured...oh I can't even remember what else it was about now. I'm sure at some point they needed proof that my mum's dog was born in 2008 otherwise Gloria wasn't going to be allowed to sing. 

We didn't know whether the ring bearers (Dale's nephews) would walk down the aisle or whether it would end up just being his niece. We didn't know whether we would be able to get married outside or if the weather would prevent us. We hadn't known until very last minute whether my dress would still fit me. We didn't know that my strict instructions for how to lay everything out would be clear enough, or even possible. 

Then in this moment, as I rounded the corner, I felt like time stopped for a moment. 

The sun was shining and there wasn't a single cloud in the sky. In front of me were all our guests, and in front of them, was Gloria. Singing. She had this flower crown on her head and this gorgeous jumpsuit and she was singing the song I had picked out to walk down the aisle to the moment I had realised I would marry Dale one day. I was wearing my dress, and Dale was here looking all handsome in his suit, and his sister's three children were walking in front of me and I just felt the most incredible happiness. 

I will never be able to believe how lucky we were to have all those uncontrollable things fall into place. It was probably the best moment of my life so far and definitely the best moment of the day. 

The Food 

To fit in with our British and Informal theme we skipped the starters and had sausage and mash for mains with sticky toffee pudding for dessert. 

It was mainly just convenient that my favourite meal is British and Informal. Just like me. 

At the ceremony we had provided party bags with sweets and crisps in (as well as Alice style giant playing cards with photo suggestions on them and little fans and bubbles- which were such a hit, highly recommend fans if you're getting married on a potentially hot day), and then later in the evening we had sweet potato fries and cake. So much super food. 

The Entertainment

As I mentioned above, Gloria sang during the ceremony. 

I walked down the aisle to I Choose You by Sara Bareilles, we signed the register to Brighter than the Sun and Falling For You by Colbie Caillat, and we walked back up the aisle together to Dreams Come True by Hall and Oates. All sung beautifully by Gloria. 

My brother and Dale's sister read a shorter, more wedding friendly version of Oh the Places You'll Go by Dr Seuss which is my absolute, number one favourite book ever, and just so fitting for every single adventure you'll ever go on. 

During the reception drinks we had Dave Lucas from Drop Dead Caricatures wandering round drawing people (he was spot on with all of them. Even managed to get the cheekiness in my Grandad's eyes) and giant garden games from gardengameshireuk.com dotted about for people to play. Again, thank you sunshine, I'd have been devastated if we couldn't have used those. They were such a hit as well- I'd highly recommend them. I felt that I was taking a bit of a chance on those but a couple of people wrote in our guest book that they were the highlight of the day. We also had a photo booth set up (just a basket of mainly Peter and Alice themed clothing items and a big frame) which resulted in so much fun and lots of fab photos. 

My entertainment highlight though was the secret singing waiters. I would love to tell you exactly what they did and how they did it but I won't talk about it at all because I'd hate to say anything that would mean you'd spot them if you were ever a guest at one of their events. All I'll say is that we hired Silver Service Singers, they were a big hit with every single guest from two year old Quinn to 92 year old Grandad Ed, and that it was worth booking them and keeping the secret just to see the look on my dad's face when he realised what was going on. Another life highlight there, I think. 

They then stayed to do the first hour of music. (First dance: Shut Up and Dance by Walk the Moon because that's what was playing when I first knew I'd marry Dale. Plus it's just a great song.) After that first hour we just put our own playlist on which was perfect. 

The party was downstairs in the basement of the vineyard which had been decorated with a light up dance floor, fairy lights in jars everywhere and big balloons dotted about; but the upstairs was still open with comfy chairs, and the balcony was strung with fairy lights too so a lot of our guests ended up sitting outside under blankets with big cups of tea, whilst others were downstairs dancing to Mr Brightside and other hits. 

I was planning on doing another section here called 'magical moments'- there are just so many throughout the day that you don't plan and desperately don't want to forget. Two year old Quinn interrupting the 'I do' moment to give his uncle a packet of biscuits. My friend Minnie Mouse jumping out of her skin when the singing waiter started singing right behind her. My friend Simba just being such a hit in his kilt and his huge smile that people are still mentioning it now. My brother's girlfriend singing Let It Go into the microphone. The speeches. The moment that Dale and I just stopped and watched, and saw Mary-who-used-to-be-my-manager-in-education laughing and cheering Simba-who-I-worked-with-at-The-Lion-King to beat Julia-from-work at giant snakes and ladders. It was just everything I had wanted. 

But I imagine you've finished your cup of tea by now and probably need to crack on so I'll keep the rest of those magical extras to myself. 

But honestly, the best thing about that day- besides the obvious (that I married the best human on the planet)- was having all those people that I love so much all together, at once, smiling for a whole day. 

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Cool to Be Kind

The other day I accidentally watched a video online (I'd been watching the Michael McIntyre Brits Abroad clip for probably the fifth time this week and it automatically moved on before I could stop it) about online bullying. Psychologists and charity workers on there were saying that a lot of the problem stems from the fact that it's not cool to be kind. 

And that thought genuinely made me feel sick. 

Hopefully anybody who knows me will know that I am a real advocate of kindness. In fact, last year at a work party somebody, out of the blue, told me that kindness is one of the key features of my personality, and that that is rare. Probably the nicest thing anybody has ever said to or about me, and a comment that I will hold onto and whip out for years to come, every time I'm overcome with self doubt, or embarrassment at something I said in 2009. Telling me that was a huge act of kindness in itself- one that I am eternally grateful for. 

But of course I'm not always kind. 

Quite a lot of the time I'm not, actually. I'm a human being, after all, and quite often can't see past the end of my own nose. But I am never intentionally cruel, and don't think I know many people at all who are. 

I shed a few tears watching this video- for the children suffering, for the parents dealing with devastated kids, for my baby who's no doubt one day going to have to deal with a world where kindness isn't cool but bullying via social media is, and of frustration that this is the world we live in. 

I'm not sure whether kindness was cool when I was at school, but I've never cared about being cool (thankfully, I'd be miserable if I did care) but I have spent a lot of my adult life grateful that I didn't have social media to deal with as a teenager. As if that time isn't difficult enough. 

I'm normally not particularly cynical- but the facts and figures on this video clip of This Morning were hard to argue with, and it terrified me. 

So I thought that I would pay extra attention to the kind things going on around me and share them with you, in an attempt to remind myself (and maybe you, if you need a reminder) that there is kindness around us all the time, and there is absolutely no reason that it should be uncool...

1) Train Adventures

Today I was brave enough to take Squirt on the train alone (and I breastfed her on there- it's not just public kindness I'm convinced should be the norm, oh no) and whilst I was waiting at the station I was immediately relieved to realise that a group of Irish women were waiting for the same train. Now I don't like to stereotype but in my experience of living in Ireland generally I find the Irish to be the kings of kindness. As a nation, they are just about the nicest people in the world. 

Sure enough, as soon as the train pulled in they gathered around me. 

"Would you prefer it if we went on before you, and helped you from there, or after you, and helped you that way? Or a bit of both?" 

Not helping me wasn't even an option. 

On the way home it was snowing. It hadn't been snowing when I left so I was absolutely freezing in my soft coat and inappropriate shoes, and Squirt was snug in her snowsuit, three blankets, foot warmer and rain cover, and so naturally was absolutely furious that she wasn't out in the fun with me. Going anywhere with a screaming baby is never fun, but as I climbed aboard the packed train with her cries immediately filling the carriage I was ready for some classic British tutting. 

Instead what I got was reassuring smiles, and I cannot tell you how appreciated they were. 

2) Other People's Stories

On Friday night my dad and brother came over for dinner. 

What an excellent opportunity to fulfil my new year resolutions, I thought. I can cook for them from scratch (resolution 1: learn to cook), and I'll have to be organised to have it all sorted on time for them to get here after work and immediately eat before the First Aid course we were doing at seven (resolution 2: be more organised). 

(Actually, in the interest of being kind, may I take this moment to promote Daisy First Aid. Jennie came to our flat and ran the relaxed but hugely informative and enjoyable course. And she's so lovely. I was listening but I did also spend a lot of time thinking about how pretty her hair was. Anyway.) 

I chose a recipe specifically because it was one that I could make during the day and heat up when they arrived so that everywhere could be tidy and ready for the course as soon as dinner was finished. I made a list of ingredients on my new handy magnetic post-it note board that lives on the fridge and felt like Mary Berry herself (who I assume is highly organised as well as being an excellent cook) as I peeled it from the top, popped it into my brand new pram organiser and glided into town, incredibly smug. I posted some birthday cards on my way (a week in advance, that's right) and as I headed home I had this beautiful vision of my family around the kitchen table, with a big bowl of salad in the middle and a hot, steaming dish of delicious loveliness beside it. 

I quickly realised that I don't own a big salad bowl. So that image made a swift exit. 

Then I realised that somehow, when I was making the list on my fancy life-changing-fridge-magnet, I had managed to leave off butternut squash. Which was the key ingredient. 

I couldn't go back, because by this point Squirt was screamingand when she gets into that state there really is no ignoring it. So I asked Dale to buy it on his way home from work. No problem. 

Dale got delayed at work by over an hour. Butternut squash is hard to cut, and took way longer than I had planned. We didn't have any saucepans big enough for the amount of pasta the recipe said I needed, and by the time Dale stuck his head round the door to see how I was getting on my hair was scraped back in a 'mum bun' smelling of burnt, I was covered in sweat, flour, and squash pips, the kitchen was covered in macaroni, and I was shouting some choice words at the utensil drawer because that one that drains pasta (pasta drainer? I mean is that actually what it's for?) was nowhere to be found and I f...lipping needed it. 

So I was not quite the glorious hostess I had been going for. 

But it's only January. 

I'll get there. 

Anyway, I saw two of my best friends yesterday and I told them this story, just absolutely gutted that I'm such a failure as a mum and a wife and a hostess when what I was trying to do was so simple. 

They didn't laugh, or overwhelm me with insincere 'oh nooo, you're doing a great job!' They just replied 'ummm....me too' and told their own stories. And that was so kind. 

One friend was sitting there in her always-immaculate living room with her perfect hair and her home made pesto ready to go with the sea bass that she was cooking. 

The other one is pregnant and glowing, with a bag of snacks and toys for her 1 year old beside her whilst she told us about her new business. 

And even they had stories about feeling incompetent and the ridiculous things they had done. They didn't have to tell them, and if they hadn't it would never even occurred to me that they ever do silly things like me. 

So kind, and so appreciated. 

3) Jiminy Cricket

My friend Jiminy Cricket is just about the kindest person in the whole world. 

She always thinks of extra lovely things to do- and seems to genuinely think nothing of it. 

But the thing I love most about her is not the flowers she sends, or the little surprises she organises, or even that she drives to me even though it's very much my turn to drive to her because she knows how disproportionately terrified I am of putting Squirt in the car. 

My favourite thing about Jiminy Cricket is that I can tell her anything. 

Absolutely anything at all. 

I truly believe that all human beings are judgemental and that's completely normal, but honestly Jiminy never reacts in a judgemental way to anything that I tell her, and I don't think I've ever heard her say a bad word about anybody else. 

She might be the extreme of kindness. 

But it makes her blooming wonderful to be around. 

Which is why I don't understand this whole kindness isn't cool thing. Surely everyone would rather spend their time with kind people? 

I always say that to be friends with Dale you have to be incredibly, super, wonderfully kind, because he just doesn't bother with people who aren't nice. (Unlike me. I have a pathological need to be liked. Even by not nice people. Which is ridiculous, I know, but probably quite common.) 

My parents are both incredibly kind, and based on pictures of them circa 1982 I actually think they were cool teenagers. Perhaps it was in fashion to be nice then?

In all honesty I like to think that being cruel has never been fashionable- especially for adults-I like to think that ultimately people are super and that evil hits the headlines for a reason- because it's worth reporting. Because it's not the norm. 

I am surrounded by endlessly kind people, and even now am feeling guilty that I haven't mentioned...everyone I know. 

All the same, please look out for the kindness around you, please be the kindness around you, and please feel free to pass your magical stories onto me. 

And any stories about cooking disasters that might make me feel better. 

And for goodness sake the official name of that pasta scooping thing. 


Saturday, 30 December 2017

Little Big Things

Regular readers among you will know that I usually limit myself to one post per month, but a few days ago a post I wrote in December 2012 came up on my On This Day app and inspired me to write an extra one.

It was a summary of the year: both for the country and for myself, and I was delighted to find (when I was self-indulgent enough to read my own writing back) that there were memories in there that I had completely forgotten about. 

A sad moment for me this year was when I discovered that the diaries that I wrote religiously for four years between 2008-2012 had been ruined by damp in my mum's garage (and unlike when that happened to Monica in Friends I didn't manage to bag myself a Porsche out of it), so finding that reading my blog back can feel similar to reading old diaries was wonderful. Which is why I decided to do the same thing for this year. 

(I should note here that between deciding to write this and actually sitting down to write, my little brother has expressed disdain for anyone who insists on reflecting on the year on social media. If you either are Chip or are like him in that way, apologies. This post is not for you. In fact, this post is mainly just aimed at 2022 Rebecca, but please do feel free to read on if you're interested. Also how mad is it that we're as close to the end of 2022 as we are to the end of 2012?!) 


2017 was a mixed bag in that it was a sad and scary one for the world, really. I often find myself wondering whether the world has always been this scary. Perhaps I'm just more aware of it as I get older. But there were some super moments for us all as well, and in my personal little world it was one of the best years ever. Probably the most important so far (maybe ever?) for me. 

I've convinced myself that it's okay to write about my best year so far as my 2012 summary was of my worst year so far. So that's okay, right? Keeps the balance? I don't want this to be like one of those awful Round Robin letters (or emails as the case may be) where you have to read about how flipping wonderful everybody else has been this year when you're there in your jammies, surrounded by chocolate wrappers and covered in spit up (me, right now) and feeling fairly gross.

It is a joy to read about warm and happy things at this time of year though. At the beginning of the month I deleted all social media apps from my phone because I was driving Dale crazy with my fury at the ridiculous things I would read.

"Why do you do it to yourself, especially just before bed?" 

But as Christmas Eve crept up on us I logged in on the internet on my phone; partly to have a little peek at how all my creative mummy friends had used Elf on the Shelf (if you have me on Facebook and shared pictures of how you make magic with that little guy, trust me, I saw it and loved it-well done!) and partly to look at the cosy Christmas pictures of my friends across the globe. Everyone suddenly manages to have something happy to say at this time of year and it really is wonderful to read. 

This year is the year I got married and had a baby. Big Things. 

And the thing about having a baby in October is that when you welcome the new year in you have no idea that you'll be ending the year with a new baby. And somehow that feels huge. New Year holds such weight for me- as it does for many. Sure, there are the scrooges who insist if you want to make changes you can do so at any time of year, and of course they are right. But the thing is, I- along with many others- do make new resolutions throughout the year. I don't realise I need to change something in my life in May and think ah well, only seven months until I can action that. Obviously. But New Year is a super opportunity to reflect and set goals because it's one that's easy to measure in time. 

So I take New Year seriously and it's just mad to me that when I was making my plans for the year this time twelve months ago I had absolutely no idea that I would be seeing in 2018 with a new little human that I spent the year making from scratch. Huge. 

But of course, I won't ever forget getting married and having a baby. I won't forget those great things like walking down the aisle or meeting my little girl for the first time. I won't forget our incredible honeymoon or the moment we finally agreed on a name. 

But I might forget some of those little but important things, so here are my top five big-and-magical-but-minor favourite moments of 2017...

1) Moment Number 1

My cousins, mum, auntie, Grandma and I have somehow found ourselves in a pattern of meeting for breakfast every now and then to laugh until we choke on our Eggs Benedict. I'm fortunate enough to be related to the funniest women in existence, and hanging out with them has created a million magical moments for me this year. 

But the number one moment has to be when one of us (and for anonymity's sake I won't tell you which one of us) had egg on her face. This is how it went: 

"Oh you've got a bit of egg on your nose. I can't carry on telling this story whilst that's there." 

"Have I? I'll wipe it off." Gone. Super. The story continues. 

"Wait. Sorry. I can't continue. Now it's on your cheek. How has it got there? The plates have been taken away! I can't-even-tell-the-story-now." 

Spoiler alert. It ended up on the forehead. None of us could breathe for laughing. The story was never told. 

You know those moments you laugh so much it forms a magical bond between everyone that's laughing? That's what every moment is like with that bunch of ladies. 

2) Moment Number 2

In May of this year my beautiful friends planned me a Hen That's Not a Hen. I'm not a Hen weekend kinda gal. I'm a coffee and a chat kinda gal. Okay, I'm not boring (I like to think), I just can't think of anything worse than dragging my nearest and dearest away from their husbands and kids for the weekend so that we can drink too much through phallic straws and scream a lot whilst wearing devil horns and sashes. 

So instead, six of my absolute favourite humans in the entire world surprised me with an afternoon tea in the sunshine. It turns out that my mum is a genuinely fantastic actress because I really did have no idea, and that my friends are just the best. 

Anyway, that's not my favourite moment. My favourite moment was the moment that they presented me with a book they had made me filled with photos, messages, and funny stories from throughout our twelve years of friendship. I laughed, cried, cringed (I remember saying to them when I was seventeen that I just couldn't imagine we'd ever look back and regret our 2006 clothes and haircuts because we just looked normal. What did I know?) and laughed some more, and every now and then I get it out again to look at and am filled with warm, fuzzy, loveliness. 

3)  Moment Number 3

Dale and I were standing at the altar, in the middle of our vows. The registrar asked for the rings, and so the ring bearers- Dale's nephews aged 7 and 2- brought them up, and we began to exchange them. 

We got as far as "I give you this ring as a token of our..." before we were interrupted. Dale's two year old nephew had wandered over to the little stage we were standing on, hoisted his right leg (and it was such an effort) up onto the edge, followed- with equal effort- by his left leg, straightened himself up, wandered over to Dale, and gave him a little packet of biscuits to snack on. In the middle of the wedding ceremony. Oh, he knows his uncle so well. 

It was just the kind of magical moment that you could never have planned but which made the day. I don't think you're supposed to laugh out loud during your vows (although my friend Pumbaa did laugh during hers saying with my body I honour you ha) but we all laughed and it was the talk of the reception drinks. 

4) Moment Number 4

My leaving party from work involved the team ordering a lot of pizza and playing Heads Up in the centre. Hanging out with people from work is a rarity in my job because we're open seven days a week, so just being together without the responsibility was brilliant. 

The whole thing was full of so much fun and laughter, but the highlight for me was when someone got carried away trying to win the game and described the movie Tower Heist as 'a heist....except...in a tower!' 

5) Moment Number 5

It was Boxing Day, and the entire family was sitting around the lounge, sipping glasses of wine and waiting for dinner to be ready in the next few minutes. None of us even realised anyone was missing. And that was when my mum popped into the kitchen to check on the turkey and immediately came running out squealing and laughing. Grandad Derek was in there. Eating the dessert. With crumbs all around his mouth. He really thought he wouldn't be caught. 

When will he learn? 

Hopefully no time soon. It's the most I've laughed since Tower-Heist-Gate.

And so it ends- the best year so far.

My resolution last year was to Be Fearless- something that I worked really hard on all year and will continue to keep in mind as we move in to 2018. This year I have a sparkly new diary that I plan to keep to record all of those Little Big Things that I know will mean the world to me, and encourage everyone to ignore those New Year Scrooges (sorry Chip) and take the time to reflect on your year, make a resolution that's important to you, and continue to find the magic in your own Little Big Things <3 

Friday, 1 December 2017

What being a mum is REALLY like...

I have always wanted to be a mum.

The moment that my baby was placed on me for the first time I immediately thought of the Christmas (1995, I think) that I was given my Baby Born doll. I remember so clearly that my mum was getting more and more exasperated because my brothers had opened all of their presents and there was still a big pile for me that I simply wasn't interested in. I remember thinking that my mum didn't understand. If I put the baby down, she might cry.

(For those of you unfamiliar with Baby Born circa 1995, there was no crying feature. But to me she was real.)

By 1995 I had chosen names for my children as well. Names I was convinced I would use. So convinced, in fact, that I named my dolls different names so that my real children wouldn't be named after toys.

(Fun fact: I haven't used my girl name because Dale thinks it's the absolute worst name in existence. But if he hadn't been quite so passionately against it the name I chose as a child would have been the one I used. It's still my favourite 22 years later.)

Anyway, I named that dolly Gemma and I loved her more than anything in the world. I looked after her beautifully, and I can still picture putting her into a little cradle every night even in the house that we moved into around 2 years after I was given her.

Fast forward twenty two years and I'm finally laying in my hospital bed with my very own and very real newborn on my chest.

The room was filled with people buzzing about doing their thing- midwives, paediatricians, doctors, healthcare assistants...(I think. I'm actually not completely aware of who was there or what they were doing), and a few of them, along with my mum and Dale, kept firing questions at me that I would vaguely brush away so that I could focus on my new busy and important job: staring at this baby.

Very much the same as 1995.

And so now I'm a mum. I have, at last, joined that coveted club that I've been desperate to be a member of for as long as I can remember.

It feels a bit like I'm fibbing when I say that.

I'm not really a mum because my baby is only seven weeks old. Perhaps I'll be a real mum when she's seven years old. But then I won't have experienced what it's like to have a teenager. So do I have to wait until she's eighteen before I can count myself a member of the club?

But of course not.

I am a card (or is that scarred?) carrying member of the mum club, and I spend most days staring at our baby (Squirt) completely unable to believe my luck that this huge dream has finally come true.

Having spent a lot of time working with children of more or less every age, in a wide range of jobs, I've spent a lot of time wondering how it will be different when I have my own baby.

When you work with children but don't have your own you spend an unfair (I feel) amount of time being told you don't quite understand because you're not a mum. 

And so I have wondered for my entire adult life what secrets I would be let into once I had my own bundle of joy. What would I finally know once I was allowed to join the club? What pearls of wisdom would finally be bestowed upon me once I had been through childbirth myself?

Well now I know, and today I am going to break all the rules and reveal The Big Secret to you: whether you have children or not.

The Big Secret is: there is no big secret.

In my now vast experience of being a mum to one little girl for seven whole weeks, two whole days and around ten hours, I can tell you that whatever the books, blogs, vlogs, and other mums in your life may tell you: nobody knows what it will be like for you. 

I've found myself reading/watching/listening and speaking to parents who insist they know the answers. I'll read articles called things like Four Things I Wish I had Known Before I Became a Mum. The entire article will then be written as though it's fact (e.g. 1. You will lose half your friends once your baby is born) and will exclaim things like we need to talk about this more- nobody talks about this stuff!

With all the things I have read and all the people I have spoken to, the absolute biggest lesson I have learnt so far is that everyone thinks they're an expert, and nobody actually is. If you believed everything you read about being a mum oh my goodness nobody would ever do it.

But so many of these articles will also say 'everybody likes to paint a positive picture of motherhood: focusing on the positives instead of telling the truth about what it's really like.'

Firstly- I think focusing on the positives about the biggest thing in your life right now is a fairly healthy way to live. Only talking about the negatives all the time cannot be good for your happiness, and definitely won't help you with keeping all those friends you're due to lose when you have a baby. (Just to be clear- I haven't lost any friends, but more on that later.)

Secondly- these lists always include lack of sleep, and when I was pregnant I can probably count on one hand the people I spoke to that didn't take it upon themselves to let me know I was never going to sleep again (including strangers who approached me in the supermarket at random)- so I'm not sure who these people are that are having babies and not realising that their sleep pattern is going to change.

Thirdly- nobody can tell you what it's really like. Because it's different for everyone. Because everyone is in a different position.

In my quest to make sense of the fact that the majority of the things I've been told/read about parenthood haven't been true at all, I imagined someone writing an article called 'What It's Really Like To Go On Holiday' with absolutely no context.

I went on holiday this year.

So I'm qualified to write about what a holiday is like, right? I could write that article, and write a list of things that you can and should expect when you go on holiday.

My holiday in May was for ten days. It was action-packed and non-stop. I went with my fiance. It was in California. I was twenty weeks pregnant. We went to three different cities and stayed in four hotels- some quite fancy and some that involved wonky flooring and questionable bedspreads. The weather moved constantly between baltic and balmy.

Similarly, my friend Jiminy went on holiday this year.

Her holiday in October was for five days. She went to Blackwood Forest with her parents, husband and one year old. They went to Peppa Pig World and the New Forest, and had unseasonably warm weather.

Now imagine if I wrote a list called 'Five Things You Need to Know Before You Go On Holiday' and sent it to Jiminy and insisted that my experiences in California were exactly what she would experience in Blackwood Forest, and if anybody told her otherwise then they were just avoiding the truth about going on holiday. 

She would, of course, know that my list is nonsense.

But if she had never been on holiday before, and was already a bit nervous about going on holiday, it might worry her if a) I had insisted that anyone who is positive about holidays is lying and b) everything I said would happen didn't.

It's exactly the same with having a baby.

So here are three things that I've been told and read about motherhood that haven't been true in my case... 

1) You will lose half your friends when you have a baby.

I haven't lost any friends. (As far as I know, anyway.) Partly, I think, because I tend to only be friends with nice people. Partly because I really didn't have any expectations of my friends (and they have therefore all surpassed anything I could have expected). And partly because my lifestyle means that my friends can still be friends with me.

I think perhaps that one is aimed at people who have come from a wild lifestyle involving being out drinking every night with friends who don't have their own children. Before I had Squirt I would spend Saturday nights texting my pal Lady Adelaide my up-to-date opinions on Strictly. Having a baby hasn't affected that. So it's been easy for me to keep my friendships primarily the same.

2) You will no longer be able to sleep. Even when your baby is sleeping, every little sound will wake you up.

Dale wishes.

Dale has to spend around ten minutes (or so he tells me, I'm sure he's exaggerating) trying to wake me up to feed Squirt in the night. Nothing wakes me. Never has, never will. I'm just a super sleeper.

3) The first few months are torture.

I entered into parenthood with Dale. We decided- together- that we wanted to have a baby, and now we are in this adventure very much together. He doesn't 'help' me- we help each other. My own parents are so excited and beyond enthusiastic about helping. Dale's mum worked out how Squirt most likes to be held within about five minutes of meeting her and that knowledge has been invaluable. In the first week after she was born we had people turning up to make us lunch and do our washing up every day- without being asked. In the morning after our first tricky night with Squirt when she was going through a growth spurt my phone rang. My friend was outside with a Sleepyhead (a sleep tool that we didn't have yet) and a Tesco bag filled with the ingredients for wraps- within half an hour of her being here Squirt was asleep, I had had the most amazing shower, and Dale and I were both on the sofa eating lunch. When I was suffering from the effects of the labour Dale's sister sent me a long text filled with genuine empathy and advice. Jiminy Cricket receives around 30 texts a day from me asking questions- I feel like she is guiding me through motherhood one ridiculous conundrum at a time. Squirt and I go to two Baby Groups where people are kind and warm and chatty and lovely, and I get to sip coffee and chat to them and hang out with my baby instead of being at work. When I'm not at Baby Club I'm either at home or wandering town in my own time, reading, and always looking after my baby. Which suits me very much because I'm a home bird and enjoy my own company, but I know that it's not like that for everyone.

Yes, I do have to get up a few times in the night. Sometimes she cries and I don't know what's wrong and I'm not sure what to do about that. I spend a lot of time smelling of her sick, and the thought of having her in the car makes me feel so sick I could vomit right now thinking about it and as a result we've been in the car around 5 times since she was born.

On the other hand I know plenty of mums who have been immediately confident driving their babies about, and wouldn't have given it a second thought. I know babies who don't really spit up, and whose mums don't have to spend their days smelling of sick.

But I genuinely love every single second- even the seconds that I'm trying to stop her from crying, even the seconds that I want to (and often do) swear at Dale for waking me up at 3am, even the seconds that I'm convincing myself I forgot to strap her in (I have never and will never forget to strap her in), because I am so aware that this time is going to go so quickly and am going to miss it all one day.

When I was pregnant, among all of the 'make the most of your sleep now' and 'it changes your life you know?' chats, I had two stand out conversations.

One was with a parent from work, and one was with my auntie.

The parent told me that she looks back on those early days- even the days when she ended up sitting and crying because her baby just wouldn't go to sleep- with real affection, and that I should enjoy them whilst I can.

My auntie told me that she was just so excited for me because I was about to embark on such a lovely time in my life. She told me stories about her routine with my cousins, and what she enjoyed about those days.

And I really think that it should come back into fashion to have conversations like that.

completely agree that mums should feel able to moan, and to warn one another about the hard bits and pieces that come with motherhood.

But I also feel that we shouldn't talk like experts (nobody is), we shouldn't be making women feel ashamed or guilty for enjoying it (which honestly so many of these articles do- it really isn't in vogue to enjoy being a mum right now), and we certainly shouldn't be insisting that we know what it's really like, because what is it really like?

The secret is: nobody knows.

A few mums have actually opened the conversations they've had with me since Squirt was born with 'I promise it gets better.' Before even saying hello.

And I always think how flipping exciting. 

Because it's so magical as it is. 

What I wish I had known before I had a baby?

That nobody would be able to tell me what it's really like.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

You've Got To Be You

Around this time last year I was at a charity quiz when another woman at the table scoffed at me for knowing the answer to a question about a reality television star. Scoffed, in fact, I feel is an understatement. She humiliated me in front of the entire team by making a huge deal about how I should be embarrassed to know the answer to that, that I should be spending my time on more worthwhile things so that I don't know the answer to such empty questions. She made me feel stupid and pointless, and that feeling stayed with me.

As it happens I don't know how I knew the answer to that question. I've never actually watched the show that she's from. Some things are just absorbed from life, I think. I always remember my tiny cousin picking up her pretend phone once and saying "no I just want to cancel my direct debit before it comes out on Tuesday." Perfect context. Perfect sense. From a three year old. Absorbed from life.

Similarly earlier in the year I had family over for a barbecue and we had a music channel on. At some point in the evening the music stopped and a show started. My dad asked what it was and three of us replied "Keeping Up with the Kardashians."

"Never seen it." He replied.

"Me neither," the three of us who had known what it was said. But somehow we all knew who each member of the family was and what was going on in their personal lives.

Anyway, the humiliating dressing down I got from that woman has stayed with me all year. How can I help what I know? If I don't know something that I definitely should then perhaps I need to start reading more or popping the news on every night. But how can I help what I do know?

I, like most people I imagine, am trying my best. I'm trying my best to be kind, intelligent and involved. To be the best I can be at being a friend and a sister, a daughter and a wife, at my job and- most recently- at being a mum. At spending my time wisely.

Then, of course, there are the wider issues. As I get older I have to be concerned not only about my world- about being good to the people I listed above, but I also have to worry about my effect on the environment, my stance and actions in making a difference toward those less privileged than I am, and about how my stance and actions as a woman affect the future of women.

And I'm trying my best.

 But in this big outburst about my knowledge of someone from TOWIE I suddenly felt that I wasn't doing well enough. Not at being intelligent, not at spending my time wisely, and most significantly- not at being the kind of woman that I am meant to be.

I'm the kind of person who always wants to do the right thing, who truly hates to be thought of as stupid, boring, or thoughtless and- again, like most people, I think- worries far too much about what others think. So I want to stand up for women. I want to fight for our rights. I want to be confident enough to take action when I know I'm being treated unfairly because I'm a woman. I want to be fully aware of how much easier I have it as a woman because of my background, and I want to be able to say and do the right things to action change for those it might not be as easy for.

Which I think is why I battle with any suggestion that I'm stupid. How am I supposed to do all of those things if I am?

I don't yet have the confidence to provide a quick and cutting reply to anyone who makes me feel stupid, but thanks to my friend Simba I made a fantastic discovery this year that means that I'm much further along the road in being able to.

A few months ago Simba introduced me to The Guilty Feminist. The Guilty Feminist is a podcast that- in their own words- explores our noble goals as twenty-first century feminists and the hypocrisies and insecurities which undermine them. In my words, they're incredible women discussing a wide range of topics whilst acknowledging the fact that real life every day feminists are not what they are often made out to be. Every podcast starts with 'I'm a feminist but...', which involves the presenters explaining the guilty non-feminist things they did/said/thought that week. Mine is usually something along the lines of 'I'm a feminist but...I listen to a podcast about feminism whilst I clean the house and my husband sits on his computer.'

And it's amazing. It turns out women all over the globe feel exactly the same as I do. They really do want to be incredible women who have the ability to change the world around them and beyond through their attitudes and actions, but sometimes it's not as straightforward as some media may have you believe. Sometimes, for example, who you are can hold you back from fulfilling the traditional picture of a feminist.

I've always been led to believe- by the kind of women who put other women down for being able to recognise a celebrity- that to be a feminist you have to look and act a particular way. I have always felt that I wasn't quite welcome in that club because I've always wanted to get married and have a baby. I spend money on make up and care how I look. I like pumpkin spice lattes and know every single episode of Friends off by heart and no matter how much I enjoy thrillers I would always rather be watching Bridget Jones. I love Disney and still know most of the Steps dance routines and have been known to tear up just thinking about an advert.

That girl can't be a feminist, right?

Then I started listening to this podcast. One week they started discussing the fact that anything traditionally liked by 14 year old girls is mocked, seen as a bit pathetic. One woman said she actually quite likes Justin Bieber, and that fact doesn't mean that she hasn't read To Kill a Mockingbird. Why shouldn't the same person be able to enjoy and partake in completely different things? Why should anything aimed at a teenage girl be a 'guilty pleasure'? Why can't it just be enjoyed? Why should I be ashamed of answering a charity quiz night question correctly? Does that undo any questions I answered correctly about politics? Of course it doesn't. But for some reason it took these impressive women discussing it for that to click into place for me.

A few weeks later they were discussing the idea of being 'fabulous' as a feminist. They discussed the fact that there can sometimes be a feeling in feminism that you have to be dowdy in appearance rather than feminine. They were saying that it's one thing to dress and make yourself up in a way that's forced because it's how somebody else looks or how you think you should look, but it's another to take an interest in clothes and make up and in a way that enables you to genuinely express yourself. That's all well and good, I thought, if you are a flamboyant person who expresses themselves with bright lipstick and a feather boa. Then it's clear you're expressing yourself. But what if your genuine, deep down, personal style is relatively boring like mine? 

And that's when a voice chimed in: 'Some people's self expression is expressed in a stereotypical feminine way, and that shouldn't be derided.' And another light bulb went on in my head. My appearance is self expression because I wouldn't feel like myself if I were to dress any other way. I've noticed recently that there are lots of girls in Chelmsford with messy high blonde pony tails and big thick rimmed glasses and that they all look gorgeous. But I wouldn't try and conform to that because I wouldn't feel like myself.

They went on to discuss the fact that it is still okay for little girls to choose to dress up at princesses, despite the general feeling at the moment that the mum whose daughter is a superhero has 'won feminism.' My memory of being little and my experience with children tells me that they dress up as something different every day- sometimes throughout the day. As an adult working with children I've been known to dress as a princess, a zombie, a dinosaur, a clown..so a girl in a superhero outfit may well- probably will, in fact- be a princess tomorrow and a dinosaur the next. Everyone's a winner. And that's my guilt at quite liking princesses banished.

What I have finally realised is the fact that I know what's comfortable for me and always style myself that way is my way of expressing myself. The fact that I know that I love American sitcoms and syrupy coffee and am excited to be a mum but also want to be a writer and see the world change for minorities and read about Irish history absolutely do not need to be contradictory.

I excitedly expressed all of this to a friend who replied "the whole POINT of feminism is that it is inclusive and nobody is lesser or more 'equal', whatever the hell that might mean. It's so much more feminist to like and love what you do and who you are than to live in judgement of others."

I've always felt this way- that I'm not quite in the feminist club because of my relatively feminine, and often predictable, nature, but what I have finally accepted is that that is inherently who I am- a feminine feminist, and no amount of judgement from others should change that. I also think that surely the most important thing of all for women to be in with a chance is for us to boost one another up, respect one another and shout about how wonderful the women around us are. Telling each other that we're not allowed in the Boosting Women Club because we dress or eat or spend our time a certain way is, of course, ridiculous.

I'm just delighted that I had this sudden epiphany exactly one week before I went into labour with my daughter- who will now be brought up as a guilt-free guilty feminist. By day. And whichever superhero she wants by night. Even if it's Cinderella. Or a dinosaur.