I’m driving our people carrier, running errands after the kids are in bed. A song comes on Spotify, one I’ve not heard in over a decade, and I’m instantly transported back in time.

I am 20 years old, on a train between Geneva and Pisa, sharing headphones with a girl I met a couple of days before, listening for the first time to a song she’s currently obsessed with (the obsession will transfer to me, but I don’t know that yet). I’m looking out of the window as the Italian countryside moves past like the backdrop of an old film. We are sitting still, in silence, as the music envelops us and people walk up and down the aisle of the carriage.

I am 20 years old, backpacking alone around Italy. I have lived alone, in a tiny town west of Paris, for nine months. In a few days, I will make a long-distance call from a payphone in an Italian youth hostel to pour my heart out to a boy back home. A year later, this song will help me through the demise of that relationship, and a few days after that I’ll meet my future husband.

I am 20 years old, between three countries, trying to resist going backwards. After living away for nearly a year, the UK represents tragedy and heartbreak and I am not ready nor willing to return. I am so against going home that I am applying for au pair jobs and have written a letter to withdraw from my degree (which I won’t end up sending).

I am 20 years old and I listen to the song, its gentle guitar and soft vocals. I see my new friend smile as she watches my reaction, and I feel on the edge of something I can’t quite name. This moment in time is fleeting; the song lasts no more than four minutes, yet something about it sticks with me enough that when I hear it fourteen years, three children and five cities later, I am transported straight back to that train.

What I didn’t know then was that that final year in Leeds would be exactly what I needed. I didn’t want to go back, and I almost didn’t, because I was scared of the sadness I felt when I left. I wish I could tell myself that I would learn to talk about grief and loss and sorrow, that I didn’t have to be alone. That in the following year I would still feel sad and angry but I’d also be joyful and in love, and I would finally feel like me again after two years of avoiding myself.

It’s funny; I’d forgotten all of this until I heard the song.

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but i’m not very good at it

Recently, our six-year-old son has started commenting that he isn’t very good at specific things. On the list so far are football, drawing, and art in general. He is unemotional when he says this; he’s just stating what he considers as a fact. And each time, I ask him this question: do you enjoy it?

I wonder when it is that we start culling the list of potential activities we could engage in because we don’t think we are very good at them? I can empathise with my son because I have a hell of a lot of activities on my not-good-at-it list. Most of these I decided were not worth investing my time in as a child. But now I’m wondering why, because many of them I actually enjoyed.

Strangely enough, my son’s decision to limit his potential coincided with me rediscovering a number of pastimes I have long believed do not play to my strengths. Because of this, I’m looking back at my own childhood and wondering why I stopped doing stuff that I enjoyed because I thought I wasn’t good at it.

Is being good at something really the only metric we should value? And where does this message come from? Are we spending too much time telling children what they are good and not good at?

I want my son to believe that he can do anything he wants to do, yet I didn’t believe that myself. I have always thought I am no good at sports – but as a child, I enjoyed dancing, trampolining, horse riding, open-water swimming, hockey, and football. As an adult, I have recently discovered a love for yoga, running, swimming, and hiking. Whether I am ‘good’ at these things does not affect my enjoyment of them.

Sometimes there is a fortunate overlap. Our son is excellent at maths; he also really enjoys calculations and working with numbers. I pick up languages quickly; I also love travelling and using translation skills. But often the stuff we are told (or tell ourselves) we are not good at, we still want to do. I am never going to be a rock star, but I love belting out songs in the car or the shower!

More than anything else, I want our children to explore all sorts of activities, valuing those they enjoy rather than being limited to those they are ‘good’ at. I don’t want them to be pigeonholed, or to pigeonhole themselves. And because of that, I will keep asking them the question: but do you enjoy it?

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she sleeps with her arms above her head

She’s done it since she was a baby. I didn’t realise she still did; I checked on them in the night because her twin was ill. She has this serious look on her face, not stern but kind of no-nonsense. Her arms thrown up above her head, backs of the palms nearly touching. She looks like the baby she was not too long ago – short chubby arms, soft cheeks, body given over to rest.

She’s always been the ‘good one’, something we’ve tried to avoid but really she has been so easy. Slept through from just a few weeks old, settles herself, does what she’s asked. Lately she’s railing against that, showing us there’s more to her than ‘good’, and wow, is there more. 
She sat on my lap in the GP clinic today. Smiling, she reached up to my head, grabbed two fistfuls of my hair and pulled with all her strength (she’s strong). When I tell her ‘no’, she sings and laughs or she tells me “I love you Mummy” or she says “hmmph!” but she doesn’t cry. 
She is independent, and she is shy. She is opinionated, and she is loud. She is creative, and she is kind. She is sociable, and she is a bit of a tinker sometimes. 
She is three years and seven months old. She is sharing the development of her personality with us, and it is beautiful.
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self-care questionnaire

Questions from the amazing Kickstart Your Creative Heart course I’m currently doing.

What does self-care mean in your world?

Keeping myself balanced so that I can give enough of myself to the people in my life. It’s essential and helps me to stay emotionally resilient. It means I can reset myself so I can respond with love to my family.

When was the last time you did something entirely for yourself?

Right now! I have taken an hour so far to write and do whatever I want to while my husband makes the kids’ dinner. I think I am quite strict about ‘downtime’ as we call it in our house. I try to make sure we both get time to do stuff we enjoy, and balance it with family activities and work.

How do you know when you need some self-care? What are your ‘symptoms’ or warning signs?

I feel irritable and hear myself snapping at my husband and the children. I notice that my breathing is not as deep as normal. My reactions are more extreme than usual and my stomach feels clenched. Sometimes I get a headache or feel extra-tired.

How would you like to feel when you sit down to write?

Calm but energised, knowing I have enough time to write without interruption (sometimes an unattainable goal!). I’d like to feel ready, to know what I am going to work on, and to feel a quiet excitement about spending this time doing something I love.

Often I feel antsy or agitated, because I have half an idea, or I’m doubting myself. I have to make a considerable effort to ignore my negative voice while I’m writing. You know, the one that says “why are you wasting your time on this? You’re not good enough. You should just stop. You’ll never get published. No one will want to read your work.” As hard as it is, I try to switch it off and just let myself write, usually without editing as I go along – that comes later.

Is there anything you already do that gives you that feeling?

Going for a run or doing exercise can help. It tires my body out and regulates my breathing, helping my mind to become a bit clearer. Spending quiet time alone also helps focus my thoughts and ideas, even if I’m not consciously considering them.

What would you do for yourself if you had unlimited time, energy and resources?

I’d go back to uni! I would love to learn and learn until my curious mind is sated. I’d study art history, literature, writing, and all sorts of modules just because they sounded interesting.


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i’m being a corn

She is in constant movement, her body involuntarily marking a song’s beat whenever she hears music. She jumps down from the sofa, pushes her toys to one side and dances, getting lost in the connection between what she hears and her body’s movements.

She uses her whole body when she moves, like I was taught to do at dance camp as a child – but it’s not learned behaviour for her, it’s simply the way she is. Even her facial expressions are exaggerated – eyebrows raised, mouth open, hands to her cheeks.

I love watching her, because she does this not for attention or performance, but because she can’t not. She hasn’t learned self-consciousness yet (I futilely hope she never does); she doesn’t even think about dancing – she just does. She’s a true natural, so much that I sometimes wonder if her dance classes will squash her passion rather than nurture it.

This evening she stomped around the kitchen, her lips like a fish’s, waving her arms at her sides. “Look at me!” she cried, laughing. “Come on, Jake, follow me!”

“Are you being a robot?” asked her dad?

“No!” she replied, as if it were obvious. “I’m being a corn!”

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he doesn’t know what a cow is

We are in the car on the way to visit some friends back in the UK for Christmas. Guy drives, I knit, our three children sit in the back and make observations about the outside world. It has snowed, and as we drive over the hills the landscape increasingly resembles a white-blanketed scene from a Christmas card.

“Look! It’s a horse!” shouts our youngest son, pointing frantically out of the window.

I turn to look, identify the animal, and attempt to hide my smile.

Our eldest son is less diplomatic. “That’s not even a horse! That’s a cow! Isn’t that a cow, Mummy?”

He’s right, it is a cow. But there was a time when my suburban boy wouldn’t have been able to point out a horse in a full stable.

On one memorable trip to feed some horses near a friend’s house, he shouted “Cows!” over and over again, then refused to believe our corrections that these were, actually, the horses we’d come to see. “Horse-cows” was the compromise he eventually agreed to, rather skeptically for a three-year-old.

I lived miles from the nearest village for the first five years of my life, and on the edge of Northumberland for the subsequent 13. I rode horses every week with my mum. How did I end up with children who don’t know the difference between a horse and a cow?

These small reminders that our children are not simply smaller versions of ourselves are not uncommon, but always surprise me. Our sons look very like me; our daughter is the image of my husband, but inside they are wholly, completely themselves.

It’s humbling and inspiring at the same time.

But seriously – he doesn’t know what a cow is! I have work to do with this one.

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a family in the waiting room

I’m sitting in a reception area at this huge hospital in. Manchester. My foot taps uncontrollably and I’m taking deep breaths every few minutes. I’m waiting to see a genetic counsellor for a review. I last saw her five years ago. A lot has happened since.

I check the time, again, and look around. A family comes in and sits down behind me. I don’t want to be obvious by turning completely around, but out of the corner of my eye I see that it’s an older couple, each white-haired, with a girl on the edge of adolescence.

My ears prick up when the woman speaks quietly to the girl. She has a Yorkshire accent. I wonder what they’re doing here, get lost for a moment imagining what has brought them to Manchester today.

They’re talking about the result of a ‘pride of Manchester’ award – it’s Emmeline Pankhurst. The girl doesn’t know who this is, so the older woman explains.

The man speaks – he sounds Yorkshire, too. He tells the girl who else was in the running, rattling off the names. His voice is deep and comforting, the epitome of a grandfather. I wonder if they live together, and if so, where are the girl’s parents. Scenarios and stories start to run through my head, and I almost miss the next part of their conversation.

They’re debating the merit of the nominees. They agree on the deserving nature of the winner, who has been selected by public vote. There’s actors; one half of a musical duo; footballers of course – this is Manchester.

The man’s tone turns disapproving: he doesn’t think they merit inclusion. The woman argues – they’re all well-known and from Manchester, that’s all that’s required isn’t it?

No, comes the reply. Emmeline Pankhurst contributed to society, she left a legacy. She helped change the world. The others are entertainers, sportspeople, yes, but they haven’t achieved positive change in the same way.

I’m so interested in their discussion that I forget to be nervous. Heck, I forget where I am. I wonder what the girl thinks and who she agrees with. I wonder if she is even listening, or if she’s already heard endless variations of this debate. I’m actively eavesdropping now, anticipating her contribution –

“Mrs Too-ret?”

The doctor is standing in the doorway, smiling expectantly. It takes me only a second to cover my disappointed expression, even less for my nerves to return. I reluctantly leave the family in the waiting room and follow the white coat down the corridor.

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one of those days

We all have those days. This is what I tell myself when I have one of those days.
‘Those days’, when everything seems to be doomed from the start. When you agree to do stuff against your better judgement (which is shouting, ‘go back to to bed, you’re good for nothing today!’).  When you feel defeated, overwhelmed and disempowered by the world. When you want to meet every request with a sigh, or an eyeroll at least. When you think, why even did I get out of bed?
Except you’re a parent, so that’s why you got out of bed. And that’s why you agree to do stuff against that better judgement. And you smile instead of sighing (or eyerolling). And your children thank you and value you the more for it, right?
On ‘those days’, your children are almost certainly having one of those days too. They too feel deflated, overwhelmed and disempowered by the world. They actually do meet every request with a sigh and an eyeroll (or a shout). And they’ve got you in the crosshairs of their frustration.
So, back to me. Today I and all three of my children have had one of ‘those days’. We have shouted, we have cried, we have had many a make-up cuddle. We (eventually, the day literally lasted years and years) got through it. And at the end of ‘those days’, there is wine. And if you’re really lucky, someone to listen, give you a hug and tell you you’re doing a great job.
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mothering without my mother

My mum died of breast cancer when I was 10 years old. Losing a parent so young is the antithesis of the gift that keeps on giving. Every special occasion, every achievement, every milestone in my life is a reminder that she’s not here.

I felt this even more keenly when I was pregnant with my first child. Midwives and sonographers asked me, “Is your mum looking forward to the baby coming?”. Colleagues told me, “You’ll be glad of your mum after the baby is born.” Even the books I read talked about how the bond between a woman and her mother is often strengthened after the latter experiences childbirth.

Here I want to state that I have a father who has done the job of two parents for the past two decades, and a wonderful stepmother. But this is about the absence of my own mother.

She wasn’t there when I wanted to ask if her pregnancy was like mine, if she experienced sickness as badly as I did, if she had the same nerves about becoming a mother, and how she dealt with working while pregnant. I didn’t get to discuss birth choices with her, and she wasn’t waiting anxiously outside as my son arrived in the world (as the baby books assured me she would be).

Afterwards, when motherhood wasn’t quite what I expected, she wasn’t there to listen and empathise and tell me whether she felt the same when I was born. She couldn’t help me navigate my new identity as a mother, and reassure me that I’d come out the other side.

She didn’t see my children’s first steps, celebrate their first birthdays, or hear their first words; she wasn’t there when my eldest started school. She is absent at Christmas and birthdays, and more poignantly she isn’t there for me to cry to when mothering is more than I can bear.

My children will never know her (except through the stories I tell); *I* will never know her as a person and not just as a mother. I won’t tell her how much more I appreciate her influence on me now, or hear from her what I was like as a child. I can’t ask her whether I am doing a good job, or how she did all she did, or why it’s so bloody hard sometimes.

My mother has been dead for more than 20 years, but with every stage of my own mothering journey, I feel her absence more. Mothering without my mother is a difficult journey, but she gave me the roadmap through her mothering of me, and for that I will always be thankful.

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dear eldest, i miss you


It started while I was pregnant. Confined to the house, if not to bed, our just-the-two-of-us world was interrupted out of necessity. I railed against it, did too much, because I wanted to be with you and make the last few months of me-and-you extra special so that’s what you’d remember when the babies came. I missed you and I missed milestones – you were just two and learning at a rate of knots, your vocabulary seeming to double each day. Already then I felt twinges of regret that I had chosen to disrupt your world.

No one tells you the sting that comes from missing your eldest child when you welcome a new baby (or babies) into your family. It’s not something I prepared for or even anticipated. I have watched close friends glow with the excitement of late pregnancy with their second children, I have smiled when they ask “what’s it like having more than one?”, I have answered simply “it’s different.”
“Of course you miss your eldest,” said one very wise and compassionate midwife as I cried when my babies were a week old. “You have spent over two years with him; you know him. You don’t know these babies yet.” That was exactly it – I felt stuck caring for my newborns, knowing that was my most important work at the time, but I longed for my biggest boy, whose every expression I knew as well as my own.
Over the past three years, I’ve missed you more and more. I waved you off to preschool, then ‘big’ school. Each step you take away from me like a jolt to my heart, though my encouraging smile doesn’t falter when you look back. You see, my firstborn, you hold a piece of my soul in your hand in a way your sister and brother never will. You taught me how to be a mother, you walked me through those impossibly difficult early months, you let me go at my own pace, and oh how you rewarded me by growing into a beautiful, bright, resilient boy.
It is perhaps my lot as a parent to stay your constant while you gradually step further and further away. To watch you grow and learn about the world is a privilege; you amaze me every day with your perception and observation. I expect more of you than is fair, because you are so articulate and expressive. I am hard on you, because I want you to be the best you that you can be. I forget you are so little still; I forget you were even littler when you acquired (through no choice of your own) two very demanding younger siblings.
I didn’t know how much I’d miss you, my eldest, I didn’t know how much it would hurt not to be just yours.
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