Sunday, 24 December 2017

Our 2017 (A year-end letter)

Dear friends,

it's been an eventful year.

Goodbye, boat life!
Somehow it's only been 6 years since Mr and I even met, and since then there's never been a dull year. Long may this continue!

We started 2017 with a move - no, two moves. We had sold our boat and needed to be out by 6th January, but hadn't exchanged on the house by then. As a solution it just so happened that a colleague of Mr had a basement flat we could move into for three weeks! Amazing provision, a great place, although moving twice in one month isn't something I'd recommend with two under 3's.

At the end of January, though, our new house was ours and we moved. On moving day we were joined by what seemed like the entire body of Lawrence Weston Community Church, everyone showing up to help: so the challenge became less one of physical hard work for us and more one of coordination of the many willing helpers! Midway through the morning, an elderly lady from the church showed up at our doorstep with the words: "Sorry I'm late! How can I help?" - and spent the rest of the morning polishing windowsills (there was dust everywhere after having the house rewired).

Having been welcomed to our new home and community like this was an amazing start. One of my main worries in moving away from the boat was the loss of the brilliant boating community where everyone knew each other and was willing to help at the drop of a hat. Yet this was provided so beautifully, not just by the church but also our neighbours. We found community.

Yay, we've got our house now!
Getting the house habitable took a while. We spent a couple of months living downstairs only - an advantage of moving from a boat where all the furniture was built-in was that the only furniture we owned was a sofa, meaning that we didn't need the extra space upstairs immediately and in terms of living space we had pretty much the same amount in the house as we'd had aboard. Mr hand-built a wall / wardrobe to divide the two main bedrooms, which had been divided by asbestos; after that, we had carpets laid and moved upstairs.

Much of 2017 was dominated by the house and getting it sorted - and it's far from there, in fact, major building works have yet to happen (an extension and kitchen) - but we also had fun. The cheapest and kid-friendliest way to get a holiday turns out to be camping, which we're perfectly prepared for with our Bongo "Mr Bubbles" and we went on several camping trips this year. But there was also opportunity for a week's holiday in the sun with grandma and grandad, in Menorca, out of season in a villa; it was peaceful and still warm enough.

At the end of a year in our new home, we really feel like we've found our groove. The kids and I attend the same groups each weekday, getting to know other mums and kids, and it was wonderful at Christmas to attend a carol singing event and know so many people in the crowd. Community. We're active at our church and love having our new friends visiting, or visiting theirs, sharing life together: community.

And that, friends, is perhaps my word for 2017. Community. It's a wonderful thing.

Every blessing for the new year to you all.

Friday, 8 December 2017

"So what difference does being a Christian make in your life?"

I was driving today and had the radio on, listening to an interview where this question was asked. The interviewee was a bit at a loss to explain - and I totally understood why, such an all-encompassing and foundational change as becoming a Christian... how would I explain, concisely and simply, the difference it's made for me?

Any answer I came up with seemed trite, worn, cliched. What difference?

I could talk about how I'm simply not the same person I was... but how can anyone really appreciate how radical a change it is to go from dead inside without even knowing it, to alive?

Or how much knowing and leaning on Jesus has helped me in the bad times? Oh no, I'd never bring this as an argument because I went through much worse before I was a Christian than anything life has thrown at me after... and I survived, even without knowing him.

I think the best way for me to explain the difference inside is to say: I care now.

I never used to care about others. Not since my mother died when I was 15 - I loved no one after that. Even after becoming a Christian, restoring my ability to love and care was a process that took about a decade!

I never used to care about myself. That's not to say I wasn't selfish, because I was, but frankly the only reason I lived long enough to become a Christian at 21 was that I hadn't found a way to stop being alive that would definitely work (I knew I wouldn't get a second chance if I attempted suicide and failed) and was within reach. I had stockpiled my mother's Rohypnol while she was sick - I'd give her one and put one in my stash, to use in case she didn't make it; but because she died in hospital and I wasn't able to get back home for about a week after, it must have been found. No one ever mentioned it but my stash was gone and in the years I lived at my aunt's I was never, ever left on my own. So... lack of opportunity really. I didn't always have an active death wish but if the opportunity had presented itself I'd probably have taken it. Nothing to live for.

That's what's changed. You could argue that I now have a family to live for, and that is true, but before God gave me the ability to care they wouldn't have made an ounce of difference. I do care for them and I would  absolutely die for them, but not because I don't care about my own life.

I have been given the ability to care, or in Christian jargon, my heart has come to life. That's the difference.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Fear based parenting - refusing the pressure

A friend with a nearly 4-month old baby visited me today. We don't see each other much these days since I've moved away, but before she gave birth I offered her a few thoughts on baby parenting (mainly to trust her instincts rather than parenting books / other people's opinions, and follow the baby's lead) and she told me today how much she took those things to heart and how well it's served her. Both she and her baby are thriving and loving the bonding early months.

But, she also told me that there's already pressure on her - friends with babies the same age are sleep training them (leaving them to cry alone), raising their eyebrows at her feeding her baby to sleep... at not even 4 months old?? I was gobsmacked. She asked me, why is it bad to feed your baby to sleep?

My answer: I'm not sure, I still feed my 3yo to sleep and it's the one thing that makes her want to go to bed - without it I don't know how much fight she'd be putting up!

But of course I've had that thrown at me too. You can't keep feeding your baby to sleep, it's a bad habit!


The best answer I can come up with, from conversations with friends, is fear. Why do people let their babies cry until they can cry no more, and call it self soothing... why go through that awful time as a mother, when every fibre of your being screams at you to just GO TO YOUR BABY and you refuse... what can possibly trump the power of that instinct? Fear.

What are we so afraid of that we create issues where none exist? When a baby could peacefully feed to sleep in mama's arms - instead to spend hours and days and nights refusing its urgent need, until it learns to stop asking? Where does this fear come from?

We have to learn to refuse the fear. Refuse the pressure. I will not create issues where there is no problem right now, just because I fear some vague problem that may (or may not!) occur in the future. 

So if I feed baby to sleep, they may not be able to settle at night without me? Well here's a newsflash: I signed up to being a mum when I brought this baby into the world. Being there for my baby is my calling, my duty - why should it have to settle down without me? If there's an emergency and I can't be there, the baby will suffer a bit and then eventually manage; but why make baby go through that without the need?

So if I don't force my baby to sleep all alone, they will NEVER sleep alone? Newsflash: I know so many families whose children - school age children! - regularly come into the parents' bed at night... yet my 3yo sleeps through reliably every night, and has done since age 2. I  refused to make her associate falling asleep with distress - shouldn't it be a safe, calm, warm experience? Funny how many kids hate going to sleep and stall and stall. I wonder if there's a connection.

So if I don't send my kid to nursery (later: school) they'll become a loner with no social skills? Well newsflash: we're surrounded by people to interact with. People of all ages, not just those within a year of the same age who are still very much learning what is and isn't socially acceptable behaviour. My 3yo is polite, friendly, open and inclusive - not least, I would say, because she learns how to interact from a variety of people, not just from her equally immature peers.

I will not base my parenting decisions on fears of the future.

"For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love and sound judgement."
- 2 Tim. 1.7 HCSB

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Building family Christmas traditions

I was never 'into' Christmas as an adult. Along with most reasonable people, I rolled my eyes at the waste of electricity for fairy lights, the earlier-every-year creep of its attending commercialism, the nonsense of a fat bearded man in red and white coming down chimneys. (I didn't grow up with Santa so from an outsider's perspective it just is weird to celebrate Christ's birth that way).

Now I have children, however, I have to engage with the culture around us, interpret it for them in a way... I want them to experience that deep and meaningful anchoring to the past that traditions give us.

But not with Santa. I'm uneasy about that man.

Traditions and family

I think that traditions serve several important purposes for kids:

  • identity (this is what we as a family do); 
  • anchoring (this is what we as a community do), and
  • sign posting (this is why we do this)

These are probably why I rejected the traditions I grew up with as a young adult: I did not wish to identify with or be anchored to where I'd come from, and I certainly didn't believe in what it all pointed to - Christ come into the world.

But now, a Christian, a mother, I have a joyful duty and serious responsibility to offer my children memories to make, stories to carry throughout their life. Traditions matter.

Christmas as a Season

The day itself is short - it's the climax, the fulfilment of all the preparation that's gone before... like Mary giving birth to Jesus (and after all that's what we celebrate) it's an event that is preceded by a period of preparation, of anticipation. There will be a big emphasis on advent in this house.

Advent will include:

  • Advent calendars. A lovely, visual way to build the excitement by counting down (well, up) to the big event. We've got two chocolate advent calendars - the boy is now 18 months and won't be left out - but only one 'gifts' advent calendar, for the 3 year old. It's the same one I've used since we got married, so there's already a kind of tradition there... it's got sewn fabric bunting pockets to put small items into. I bought a small nativity play set that just happens to have almost the right number of pieces; between shepherds, animals, angels, kings etc she will end up, at Christmas, with a full nativity set to play with. And each day I can explain who this figure is. 
  • Advent Sundays. They're special. In Austria we would light another candle each advent Sunday on our advent wreath, and I like that tradition so we're doing that. 
  • Also weekly, although probably not on Sundays, we'll be visiting a place (our doctors, the police, fire service, ambulance service) whose service we are grateful for and thanking them with little gifts of sweets. This way I'm looking to instil an understanding of the spirit of Christmas, of blessing others - to counter the message that it's all about the gifts you get. 
  • Lots of toddler group Christmas activities and crafts. Of course those are inevitable, but they're also useful. The kids will experience all sorts of views, images and ideas about Christmas and I'll get the chance to talk to them about it all. 

What advent won't include for us:

  • Visiting Santa's grotto. Going into what sounds like a cold, damp lair belonging to this mythical intruder is not for me, and even if we did it there would be a lot of explanation needed (is this man here the real Santa? Why sit on his lap? What has he got to do with Jesus' birthday?) which I think would be quite confusing for a 3 year old. 
  • A Christmas tree at home. Our home will be decorated, yes, but by putting up a Christmas tree weeks before the event they would become used to its presence and by Christmas it's not special any more. 

Christmas, the event

To me, Christmas is the evening of 24th December. That night is the culmination after so much preparation and excitement and I want it to be magical to the children.

They will go out with their grandparents that afternoon. Maybe to a Christmas market. Meanwhile at home, we'll put up the tree and put the presents underneath it so that when they come home after dark, they walk into a room that is lit up only by the lights from that tree. Christmas music will be playing softly in the background. We might sing Silent Night. We'll definitely wish Jesus a happy birthday and thank God for sending him into our world.

And then, somewhere between eating our Christmas dinner and opening our presents, we'll be making lasting memories of love and family.

Friday, 10 November 2017

A New Vocation

We need money.

The cold hard truth - we are just about managing on one salary, but it's tight and the house is still a project with much more to do than we have money for! So, we need some more income.

 Mr. and I sat down for a long chat about that. He can't change jobs; in his industry there is great uncertainty due to Brexit right now, and he sees lots of colleagues being made redundant. He's got a good pension scheme where he is, and has been due a pay rise for several years (!) now - hopefully that will come to fruition at some point. So changing jobs isn't workable for him, and changing careers (which he would quite like to do) would mean taking a huge pay cut for several years as he gets stuck in to his new career, which also isn't workable right now.

As for me, I'm qualified as a marketer (postgrad). But I don't have the mental capacity at the moment to really apply myself in that field; if I wanted to be employed, it would be difficult to find a job with better conditions than the one I had before baby #2 - that was only 8 hours a week, from home, completely flexible on times... yet I could barely do it with one baby, certainly not with two! Only 8 hours, sounds like nothing, but working them around kids naps or occasions when the grandparents can take the kids was incredibly stressful and I don't feel I was able to give my best to that job. If I wanted to be self-employed and work as a consultant or similar (charity marketing, fundraising etc. being my specialities) I'd have to spend years to build up a client base and reputation, and would have very busy periods within projects which I couldn't necessarily work around the kids.

So... what to do?

It was for me to find something to do, since Mr. isn't in a position to. I set out my requirements:

  • a completely flexible job that I could do around the kids
  • something that would bring in money quickly (not years of building up)
  • something that would definitely be needed
  • something that didn't require strenuous training or time away to train (because of the kids)
  • something that wasn't too mentally demanding - as my mental energy mostly goes on my kids! now I'm training as a hairdresser.

It's a one-year course, after which I'll be qualified to be a mobile hairdresser. I can go to people's own homes, or have them come to mine. This means I can set my own working hours around what works for me and my clients!

And is there a market for this? You bet! I know lots of mums who avoid going to a salon due to having to organise childcare, as well as the cost; also elderly people who find it hard to get out to a salon. Both of these groups, mums and elderly people, are also often lonely and need a chat. This is the vocation I'm increasingly becoming aware of - having chosen the profession and training on the purely practical points above, I'm now finding that perhaps this is actually what I'm being called to do... a way in to be a listening ear, an encourager, a sympathetic presence in the lives of people who don't often get the chance to have an uninterrupted conversation (and with toddlers, don't I know all about that!)

I can't wait to get stuck in. Several months into the course now I find it's so much more interesting to learn about all this than I thought it would be!

Sunday, 22 October 2017

The lure of coping mechanisms old and new

In my previous post, I illustrated the way I feel like a car on ice - I've lost traction and it feels like going into a spin is just a matter of time.

Now, this isn't a sudden, new thing; it's built up over months, until finally the penny dropped in my head. I'd been going, running, slipping and sliding and instead of stopping to think what's going on, I turned to coping mechanisms. I see this so clearly now! But in the months leading up to this realisation that I need to actually put some commitments down, I found myself desperately trying to fix myself somehow.

Because it had to be me that's wrong, right? Too lazy / disorganised. My first instinct is to find the problem within myself, and fix it. My second instinct is to do the ostrich: focus on something completely unrelated and hope that the actual issue will go away.

So at first, to fix myself, I started making plans. A well planned day wouldn't get away from me! I knew what I was going to do when, what I would clean on which day, what I'd cook each day of the coming week. None of that was a bad idea as such, except that I failed to account for the fact that I'm not a robot and sometimes I'd really need a moment to have a cup of tea on the sofa instead of mopping the floor. No time for slacking like that in my plan - so I'd fail at keeping up with it and try harder next time. Except I'm still not a robot.

Grace. Plans are good, organising is good, but when I'm overcommitted and unable to allow for a break now and then, I need to consider that maybe all the things I'm planning and organising aren't realistic to achieve... ouch.

And so after trying for way too long to organise my way out of overcommittment, I found myself going down a well worn old path to escape thinking about things - to do the ostrich. I had thought that perhaps this path would have grown a few brambles by now, as I had avoided it for many years.... but it's still here and wide open as ever, I found.


Like any old addict I almost sleepwalked straight back into the familiar misery of disordered eating. I walked right across several lines in the sand that should have sent claxons blaring in alarm - cutting out food groups; telling Mr. I was going to do XYZ (I have made a promise to myself to keep the morass of my body/ food issues away from him as I wouldn't want him to see what I see when looking at me); weighing often; compensatory eating ("been good all week, I deserve a treat") and loss of control.

Those things aren't easy to admit but if I've learned one thing in my recovery it's that they fester and grow in the dark. Secrets kill.

So what's pulled me up to consciousness?

I'm not sure, is the honest (and frightening) answer. Perhaps the years of freedom and recovery, becoming used to healthy behaviours, eventually kicked into my subconscious with a resounding HELL NO. Or maybe having the kids, needing to be fully present for them, stops me getting absorbed the way I used to be. Or maybe, just maybe, I have God to thank. He's the one that got me out of the food mess all those years ago, after all.... and though he did warn me that if I really wanted to go back then I could, I know he wouldn't just wash his hands of me.

I have to trust that he can and will take me back to the fork in the road where I turned towards self-destruction to distract myself from life. Life is for living, it's for being fully present!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

I'm doing too much

Confession time: I'm not up to it all.

Lately - that is, over the last six months or so - I've been increasingly feeling like a car that's gone on an icy patch: I'm still going in the direction I want, momentum is carrying me, but I've lost my grip on the road. Plates I'm spinning are beginning to drop.

I need to do less, and that is a very tough realisation to come to.

For someone who's always worked full time, volunteered, was active in the church.... I often feel like I'm hardly doing anything now! But somehow this "hardly anything" takes much more of my mental and physical energy than anything I've ever done before. But it's hard to remember this when I'm asked, oh can you JUST do this.... help there... because all those requests are small things in themselves and they're oh so easy to add to my plate. Sure I can do that little thing! And this too. And the other. And - then I'm starting to slip and slide on the ice.

So I'm having a long, hard look at my priorities. None of the many plates I'm spinning are bad, they're all worthy and important, but I need to remember what I'm here for and that I just can't spread myself too thin!

  1. Family. I'm spending almost all my time with my kids, and that's intentional. I want to be a mum who is giving them the best, rather than the rest, of her energy and attention. To support my family and my ability to be with them, I've started to train as a hairdresser - that's a one-year course I've committed to and after that I'll be able to make an extra income that works around the kids. 
  2. Local community. When we moved to this area, we decided to become part of a local church on the estate and to give it our all. The church is an incredibly exciting, dynamic group with a real heart for reaching and supporting local people - I help regularly at the kids club, which draws lots of local children whose parents have absolutely no connection to church. Helping there is very much part of my purpose. 
  3. Service. This is the tough place, where cuts have to happen somewhere. I serve in various ways - typing for deaf people, leading a Bible study group - all of which I care about greatly, but which aren't part of my core calling. 
It's not that I can't say no - if you've ever met me in person you'll know that I usually say what I mean, and I won't say yes when I mean no. (Some years ago when I was happily single and child free, I moved to a new city and began attending a new church. After a few weeks there, a lady approached me asking if I'd like to help with kids ministry - my face must have said it all - and my no was so clear they never asked me again about anything to do with kids!)

My problem is that I underestimate ALL THE TIME what it takes these days to complete even the simplest of tasks! 

So I'll have to make my default answer,  "I'll think/ pray about it" rather than yes, even if I feel I could do it. And then to consider whether it's part of my core purpose or not. Now for the hard task of letting go of some commitments to regain some traction on that ice patch....

Friday, 12 May 2017

A question of obedience

I read something the other day. A Christian parent, with the best of intentions, said their goal for their child was to build "a habit of cheerful, first-time, complete obedience".

I thought about that.

I mulled it over for days.

And I have pretty strong feelings about it: this is not what I want to build in my children. Not at all. It's something I have read and heard fairly frequently in Christian circles, this idea of instant obedience as a goal for your child. With the idea that they will then be quick to obey God in a cheerful and complete manner.

So why do I disagree so strongly? There are just so many things wrong with this idea!

  • Firstly, I don't want my children to obey any and all authority out of habit. A habit of obedience is not good in an adult, and adults is who they will become.
    "I was ordered to do it, and I obeyed." - as an Austrian, with the shameful past of the 20th century behind us, this makes me shudder.
  • I want my children to choose to obey God out of conviction. Not habit. This is something they will need to choose at a later stage in their lives, when they are able to; and I want them to think it through carefully, commit completely, and obey because they are convinced and because they love God. Not because they've been taught, or out of fear, or out of habit.
  • Equally, I want my children to obey me because they love me and they love to please me. Not because they've been trained into a habit of not questioning my authority. In fact I would welcome their questioning - I want them to trust that I will only require obedience at times where it truly matters, and I will always have good reasons for requiring it. They are welcome to ask me what those reasons are, and I will explain it to them.
    That is how I want them to obey God, too: out of love and trust. I believe God is good and requires obedience for good reasons, for my good. That's why I obey him. That's how I want my children to follow him - with their minds engaged.
Obedience training is for dogs - a child is not a separate being, they are persons who will be adults and I really try to think through what I'm building into them long term. Would "cheerful, complete, first-time obedience" make my life easier? For sure it would! But that's not the persons I hope to build as they go out into the world.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Sleep (or not): an experience of powerlessness

It's 9.30pm and N - now 2 years and 4 months old - has only just fallen asleep. We started this evening at 7pm or so.

At times like this, every single minute truly stretches. She doesn't fight, as such; she just lays there and stays awake. Counts her fingers. Plays with her lips. She doesn't try to get up but she's definitely awake and conscious.

And it's the most infuriating thing! Why? Because there is nothing, nothing whatsoever, that I can do to get her to go to sleep. She's not doing anything wrong. She even closes her eyes when I tell her to sleep now (for a moment or two).

Over the course of these long 2+ hours I go through a lot of approaches. None work. We start with breastfeeding, as usual; when one of us has had enough, she comes off and I'll cuddle her. That's when I expect her to go to sleep.

But no.... the fiddling, whispering, finger play - or, if I crack down on everything, simply laying there awake continues. And continues. She stops doing whatever it is when I tell her to stop, but starts up again a little later. And I get frustrated. Later I get angry. And I have shouted at her before, making her cry.

It's all because I'm powerless.

I can't make it happen.

I can't force her.

Maybe this is a taste of parenthood reality.... as a baby, I was in charge and if I wanted her to sleep, I'd put her in bed, feed, done. But babyhood is over and piece by piece, this small person is wrenching control of her life from my grasp.