Bodies After Babies

So your baby/ies have ‘ruined’ your body. Sad but true? Not really. Here’s why:images-7
A is for awesome. Your body made a person. How the feck did it do that? All KINDS of awesome.

B is for boobs. Big when pregnant, REALLY big when full of milk, and impersonating those things you hurl over the side of boats when mooring them after that. But they FED and GREW your amazing baby which your awesome body made. Plus you are now entitled to fancy lift up bras because you made somebody else.

C is for caesarean scar. Scars are COOL.

D is for dimples. On butt cheeks. If you have these be proud. You MADE somebody and so if your bum is dimpled because you ate too much cheesecake because you made somebody, then so be it.

E is for everyone. Everyone’s body changes; man, woman, baby or no baby. No one gets to keep their 18 year old body. (Celebrities are pretend.)

F is for funny. Can your teenage baby-sitter fart the alphabet or flap her bingo wings about in an amusing fashion? Exactly.

G is for girlfriends. Everyone has that one friend who inexplicably ‘bounces back’ after childbirth. But if her tummy pings back you can bet the poor love has haemorrhoids. No one goes completely back to normal. Remember – we are all in the same boat.

H is for hair loss. Hormones sometimes means hair loss (amongst other things). Never mind, less to wash and blow dry.

I is for inner thighs. Probably wobblier than they were. Probably touching. That’s ok. Marilyn Monroe’s did too.

J is for jumping. Hard to do without peeing your pants now, but pelvic floor exercises can be done anywhere, at anytime so be getting on with those and soon that trampoline will be YOURS.

K is for kissing. When you feel like a knackered old frump, don’t forget about kissing. Your mouth hasn’t changed much. Use it. Kissing turns ‘have you taken the bins out’ into ‘Mmmmmmmmmmm’. Your fella loves your mummy body. He wants to kiss it.

L is for laughter lines. Loads more now. Because you have been laughing lots.

M is for Motherhood. You are living it. But you will definitely know someone who isn’t and WISHES she was. Be grateful. There are a trillion women who would give anything to have a wobbly belly and a flappy bum if it meant there could be a baby in their arms.

N is for nose. I’ll bet it hasn’t changed one bit! And now you are no longer pregnant things will no longer smell so rank that you puke at the very thought of them.

O is for OTT. Banging on about how fat you are is annoying and boring. You are not fat – you had a baby, and now you have a belly. See the letter M.

P is for pelvic floor. A massive muscle that served you and baby well. Elasticity comes back. You can make this happen. SQUEEEEEEEEEEEZE.

Q is for the Queen. Every single body gets old.

R is for running about. Nature’s postnatal workout. Once a GP asked me what form of exercise I undertook. I told him I had three children.

S is for strangers asking are you having another baby already?! All those sleepless nights will give you plenty of time to think of an appropriate come back. “No, I’m not. This is the left over packaging from the first one”. You may still look a little bit pregnant, but at least you’re not rude.

T is for tummy. The most wonder-fullest place for your baby to grow in, and then lie on.

U is for underwear. Your pre-baby thongs cutting into your lovely handles like cheese wire? Ditch them. Buy some lovely new pants. Comfy ones. Lovely.

V is for vagina. A baby came out of it. See the letter P.

W is for water balloons, AKA post baby buttocks. You could go to the gym or get a personal trainer. Or just use them to sit on whilst you’re watching telly.

X is for x-ray. If you saw one you’d see that even your skeleton has changed. Pregnancy hormones cause the pelvic bones to widen in preparation for birth. This is why your skinny jeans no longer fit – clever bones.

Y is for yummy mummy. You.

Z is for zips. If they don’t do up, don’t worry. See all of the above.

Caring for Calais

Sometimes I am bruised by the love I have for my children. Sometimes I curse it and resent it and push against it. It’s the kind of love that makes you feel vulnerable as hell. The kind that appears suddenly when you watch them sleep, thumping you in the chest. Your heart goes cold and the blood freezes in your veins. It’s a terrifying love, as painful as it is joyful. If I wasn’t saturated in this much love, life wouldn’t be so scary. If my children didn’t pepper my everyday with all these insane moments of such extraordinary and searing joy, life wouldn’t be so bloody terrifying. If I didn’t have so much happiness, I wouldn’t have so much to lose.

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I saw a counsellor for a while, and she told me I was ‘sensitive.’ Sensitive people feel joy deeply. Which is fantastic. But the flip side is that they feel pain deeply. My sensitive heart means that I feel intense joy, and I feel acute pain.

When I first laid eyes on the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in September last year, my heart shattered into a million pieces. My heart was broken because I know that I am not alone in having a sensitive heart. Because I know that other mothers love their children in exactly the same all consuming way that I love mine. Other mothers ache simply because their children exist. When you have a child, your heart beats on the outside of your body. I’ve never known vulnerability like it.

In the early hours of 2nd September 2015, having fled several Syrian cities which had been attacked by ISIL, Alan Kurdi’s mother paid traffickers the equivalent of $5,860, and put her two small sons into a small rubber boat. She swallowed her terror of the open sea, she faced the extreme danger they were all in, and she took the ultimate risk. Because she had no other options left open to her. There were sixteen people in the boat, which was designed for a maximum of eight. The life jackets provided were fakes, so they did not work. The family were trying to reach the Greek island of Kos, when the boat capsized. And the family drowned.

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When I heard that Alan’s mother had not survived, I was shocked at my feelings, because they were feelings of relief. I was relieved that she didn’t have to suffer the agony of the loss of her family.

After that, my consciousness was continually littered with the image of Alan and his story. With the understanding that he and his brother could so easily have been my two boys. With the knowledge of how if they had been mine, my love for them would have destroyed me in this situation. Their suffering as they fled and as they died in that cold water, would have been too much for me to bear. I became haunted by the knowledge that although her suffering was finite, their mother spent her last moments in acute terror for her children. I could not even begin to imagine her distress. But I made myself try to imagine it. Because once you climb into someone else’s skin, someone else’s pain, and walk around in it, then you experience empathy and with empathy comes action. I knew that had to do something to help, where now, she could not.

I was completely overwhelmed. How could I, a busy working mum of three small children, do anything of any significance? Then I saw a post from a woman collecting blankets for the babies who had made the journey to Greece and were facing terrible cold and hunger. I know how to write a story, and I knew that if I started sharing these stories and needs online I could rally support. And when you have support you feel less alone, less overwhelmed and much, much stronger. I started a collection in Tooting and saw immediately just how badly people wanted to help. Within an few days I had a car full of warm, fleecy love, which I was able to take to be shipped to those small babies who needed them. It was embarrassingly easy.

Soon after that I read about family who were trying to get to Greece when their boat was hit by a storm. A young father suddenly had his tiny daughter ripped from his arms by a huge wave. He dove into the freezing water and frantically searched for her. He went down and up again, down and up, searching with more desperation that anyone I know could ever begin to fathom. But he could not find her and she was lost forever. She died in a cold and violent sea, one month before her second birthday. My own daughter was exactly the same age at the time. Stories like this SMASH your heart to pieces. They hurt to think about. This story would not leave me and it hurt me, physically, to think about. Physically. But I decided to sit in the pain. I made myself imagine searching for my baby in that water. I made myself think about it and I cried and I hurt and then I made myself do it again. And my sensitive heart was in agony and so I had no choice but to do more to help. And when I started doing things, the pain eased up a bit.

Mother Theresa said “We cannot do great things in this world. But we can do small things with great love.” And Margaret Mead said that we should “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” And Glennon Doyle Melton, (who is my daily inspiration and if you don’t follow her on Instagram or read her books and blog you SHOULD), says “We can do hard things.” And we can. We already have.

Soon after that story broke I read about an American woman who started an appeal for baby slings and went to Greece with hundreds of them, strapping babies onto their mothers as soon as they came off the boats in order to make their journeys just a tiny bit easier. I wondered if I could do the same. But as the weather grew colder and more vicious we heard more and more about people suffering in Calais, so very, very close to home. Unlike the families in Greece, these were people that I could physically get to, really easily. Ideas started sparkling. At times I felt thoroughly defeated. It’s very overwhelming to stare at a problem of this scale and feel useless. It’s very easy to feel so helpless that you cannot see how your help will help. It can seem pointless to even try. But we must never think that because we can only do so little, that we shouldn’t bother to do even that. (If you think you’re too small to make a difference – spend a night in a tent with a mosquito.) I had to start somewhere. I knew from the blanket collection that I would have a ‘small group of thoughtful, committed citizens’ behind whatever I tried to do.

So I made a plea for help – cash for a Crowdfunder, and sleeping bags from an Amazon wish list for those who so desperately needed them. The response was MIND BLOWING. Within 48 hours, our kitchen was full of brand new sleeping bags. The Crowdfunder grew and grew and grew before our eyes and soon we had £2K. My children’s response thrilled me as much as anyone else’s. They may not eat broccoli or turn the telly off when I ask them to or get their wees into the toilet bowl, but they were, and are, deeply compassionate. And that’s all I really give a shit about. They wanted to learn all about the crisis and understand how they could help.

Soon it was time to go. The kids and their friends filled our car with the sleeping bags, and I cashed the Crowdfunder into Euros. Rupert and I kissed the children goodbye and drove to the Eurotunnel. We reported to the L’Auberge Warehouse, in a secret location in Calais, ready to do as we were told. We were put to work sorting clothes, and bagging up tinned food for the families to use to cook for themselves. One of our main jobs was to make up ‘grab packs’ so that families could grab them and run should they be evicted from the camp as was the (very real) threat back then. Soon it was time to go to the shops and spend all the money everyone had kindly donated. And that was when we met Tina.

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In October last year, Tina took a week out of her studies on ‘Humanitarian Crises’, in order to come and help out in Calais. And when she got there, she found herself IN a humanitarian crisis. So she left her life here, and she stayed there. And she is still there. And every day she looks after thousands of refugees; delivering food, phones, clothes and HOPE. She took us and all our Euros to the big cash and carry, and on the way she told us that the French police hated the refugees and that the locals hate them too – the presence of such an enormous group of people is a huge concern to them, and so we were to respect their feelings however much we disagreed with them. We needed to be highly inconspicuous and to play down the fact that we were helping the people in the camp. So off came our muddy wellies and high vis jackets, on came our fake smiles. Once we had bought and paid for the food, casually joking with the staff and acting as if we were ordinary holiday makers who just happened to need enough food for hundreds of people for no particular reason at all, we drove it back to the warehouse. It was pounced on  gratefully and immediately chopped and cooked and put into stews and curries and salads ready to be driven out into the camp, which is a few minutes drive away, a few hours later. The warehouse feeds thousands of refugees every single day. Hot, nourishing, delicious food. All volunteers are fed too, so we got to taste it all. I was blown away – it was sensational. You could feel the love in every bite.

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After lunch, it was back to clothes sorting. We met some incredible people. One woman had just returned from a stint in Greece where she was collecting babies off the boats. Her stories of hurriedly dressing screaming and sodden and freezing babies, and finding dead children in the bottom of boats had me madly googling flights to Greece as I folded children’s clothes and wept. As we worked, people would fly in and ask me to pack a bag of clothes quickly – one for a seven month old boy whose father was missing, another for a newborn whose mother had died. I could hardly bear it as I scrambled together the warmest items I could find and packed up some formula and bottles. I couldn’t believe what was happening.

There is a common misunderstanding surrounding this situation. Many people assume that charities are on the ground, helping. But the fact is that no official aid organizations or charities are being allowed into the camp. This is because their involvement would mean the camp would gain official refugee status, which would mean the refugees would have rights to be there, which would mean that the authorities could not go in and tear them up whenever the want to do so. Which is exactly what they did, just two days after we left.

The absence of official aid organisations is bad – it means that the residents in the camp are only being kept alive by normal people whose hearts are breaking enough to want to do something. If we do not continue to give, they will not eat. But our presence, although by no means professional, is wildly powerful – it means that the people keeping these desperate people alive, care. The people who are helping are not being paid by Oxfam or Save the Children or anyone else, to be there. These people are there because they want to be there. Because they want to help. Our determined presence there offers much more than food and shelter. It offers hope – which is more vital to the human condition than anything else. With a little bit of hope in your pocket, you can survive most things.  Our presence there says ‘our government may not care, but WE are not our government. We care, and we want to help.’  Every grass root organisation working on the ground, every single volunteer, is working as if there has been a natural disaster – because the scale of the situation really is as bad as if there had been.

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The first time we went into the camp it was bitterly cold. We were taken in by Toby and his girlfriend Rachel, volunteers who were living there in tents, alongside the refugees. Toby was beside himself over the brand new sleeping bags we had with us and couldn’t wait to give them out to his cold friends. The camp is next to a motorway, on a landfill site, completely unfit to build anything on, with a large swamp in the middle. Because it floods easily and all the time, disease and infection are rife. Medical treatment is in short supply. The lives of these people depends entirely on the goodwill of people willing to help. Until recently there was no running water or toilets. Now there are a few, but the refugees have to make do with portaloos and should they want a shower they will have to queue for hours and hours, for just two minutes washing time. As well as serving hot food, the incredible volunteers respect their various cultures and everyone’s dignity by bagging up food packages containing essential items so that families can cook for themselves as they would do at home, rather than just receive handouts. But there is a huge problem with sourcing and storing cooking gas and so many people are spending hours searching for firewood to make fires to cook on. This causes fires to break out in the night which leads to more panic and chaos.

Toby took us into the camp and showed us the eviction notice that the French authorities had displayed in the camp as was their legal obligation. It was a piece of A4 paper, torn and sodden by the rain, stuck onto a post with some tape, and completely unreadable. The French police, wearing balaclavas and armed with guns searched our car and questioned us at the entrance. With no reason to detain us, they eventually let us into the camp. Toby explained that the police hated him with a passion for helping the refugees. (He has since been arrested for ‘standing in one spot for too long’, and is not allowed back onto French soil for three years.) We met some refugees who wanted to speak English with us. They were talking in groups about how they would be able to cope if they were attacked. They showed us their church, their little school, and their makeshift shelters. Two grubby little boys played at our feet with sticks in the dirt while we talked. My toes soon went numb with the cold. It seemed unthinkable that I had to leave these poor people in such horrendous conditions. And then things went from bad to worse. Just two days later, we were watching footage of the destruction of the South of the camp, live, in real time on social media, posted by those who were there, witnessing it happening. It was truly devastating. It wasn’t just the refugees the French were trying to send a message to with their bulldozers and their chainsaws – it was to all of us who were trying to help too. ‘Stop building shelters’ their actions said – ‘stop, because we will tear them down. Stop providing food and clothing – we will burn it all’. After all our efforts, this was hugely demoralising. But all I knew was that if they were going to destroy the thousands of pounds worth of practical support, there was only one thing to do – raise thousands of pounds more.

I started another Crowdfunder and when there was enough money in it I went out again – this time leaving the kids with Rupert, and taking some friends with me. As well as cash, we took with us more sleeping bags and lovely squashy sleeping mats, and this time colouring books and pens for the children as well. This time I took an individual care package to a refugee named Ali, whom my friend Alice had been looking after on her own trips out there. My friend Sarah and I sat in his tiny shelter, hiding away from the rain and drinking tea. Ali was in the jungle because ISIS had demanded that that he join them. They had threatened to kill him if he refused. His only other alternative was to flee. Since his wife had been killed in Syria ten months ago, he made the decision to leave their 18 month old son with his mother and make the journey alone. His plan was to make it to the UK, find accommodation and work, and then to send for his son once he was settled. We gave him a few treats, and a phone charger. His phone lit up and so did his face – now he would be able to speak with what remained of his family. It was devastating to watch him stroke pictures of his son and cry quietly as he talked about his wife.

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The alternative accommodation that the French authorities were offering since the eviction, the ‘containers’ which the media presented as cosy and warm, were actually wholly unsuitable. If the refugees were to accept a bed in one, they were not permitted to stay with their families, as men and women were and are separated within them. Should any inhabitant decide to leave at any point, what little possessions they had would be thrown out and the space given to someone else. It was astounding to witness such extraordinary lack of compassion. The people in this camp are despised, and made to feel like animals. After all they have been through, I cannot even begin to imagine what this must feel like.

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Calais is not somewhere you can turn up to, drop donations off, and say your cheerios. When you get involved, you become involved. The first two Crowdfunders raised nearly £4,500 in cash. By this time I had also gathered £5,000 worth of brand new donations. But having saturated my own network of friends and family and community I knew I had to throw the nets out wider in order to raise more. When I was teaching in school we always said that teachers themselves are the greatest resource of all. So I knew that by taking PEOPLE with me the next time, by filling my car with willing hearts and hands, the support we could offer would go a great deal further. And so that’s what I did. Wonderful, warm hearted people came forward and committed to coming with me. The youngest volunteer was twelve year old Callum, who after a day of working in the warehouse told his mother that they had to go back and help again. Once home again she told me that this experience has brought out something truly beautiful in her son. Just as it has in mine. We can all be part of the solution to this atrocity. Together, we can do hard things. We have raised £12,000 in just three months. Just through Crowdfunders and shameless begging. And this is only the beginning. Many, many wonderful people are helping, in many wonderful ways. Alice has been going out monthly, since August, and taking huge amounts of food and new clothes and toiletries with her each time. There are many warm hearts invested in this – but we need more.

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On this last trip out we were met by Tina who simply fell into my arms and held me tight. She gave my team a tour and explained that the shelves were nearly empty, that thousands of people were depending on her to feed them, and that more were arriving every day. The pressure on these volunteers in unbelievable. Tina recently managed to strike a deal with a cash and carry outlet in Lille and now she can get large quantities of food for a reduced price. She was able to restock the kitchens with the money we turned up with.  We unloaded the car with fresh cakes lovingly baked by the good people of Tooting and the reaction of the full time volunteers reduced me to tears. Again. They were SO excited and so happy and so touched. They are so tired and so weary and at times the hopelessness is so crushing, especially with zero governmental support, and so the love that arrived in those cake tins REALLY gave them a boost. After the passionate debrief from Hettie who is one of the young volunteers who works full time and tirelessly, we were put to work sorting clothes. This is a massive job – before you can fold everything into piles you have to weed out dirty, torn, and wildly inappropriate items. The warehouse has received wedding dresses, ball gowns, high heels, and all sorts. (One of my team found USED THONGS, an actual poo in a pair of trousers, and too many glittery outfits, suit and ties to count). People have sent ripped tents, torn and dirty sleeping bags, dvd players and other completely thoughtless and unhelpful items which costs time and money to dispose of. It has become apparent that people are trying to clear out their wardrobes and their consciences at the same time. But how would you feel if you were starving, cold and desperate, and all you were handed to sleep in was a crappy, ripped and stained sleeping bag from 1974 ? Nothing would spell out ‘charity case’ more clearly. The volunteers will only take new or very high quality items into the camp. The refugees already feel like animals – our job is to make them feel like welcome guests. The notion that if it’s for charity then it can be crap, has always riled me. (One of my favourite hashtags throughout this whole venture has been ‘onlythebest’.)

Certain sections of the media would have you believe that the camp is full of healthy, strapping, young men who have left perfectly reasonable lives in order to find even better ones here on the golden pavements and the green pastures of the UK. Others would have you believe that these people are a threat to our securities and our economy. But the reality is that NO-ONE would consider the camp a better alternative to anything. Yes there are a huge number of young men. But the majority of these men are men who have REFUSED to join enemies. Men who have REFUSED to make these enemies stronger. Many have wives and families whom they have left behind. And many have wives and children huddled inside the tents and shelters of the Women and Children’s Centre in the camp. The media photograph things in very misleading ways, always remember that. The media LIE to us. And what you also need to remember is that Calais is the last point, the dead end currently, of a very long and arduous journey. One volunteer found two twelve year old girls who had WALKED to Calais. From Afghanistan. Unimaginable, but true. The residents of the camp are the fittest and the strongest, simply the only ones who have survived the journey. Assume nothing. NO ONE would live in the squalor of Calais if they had a better alternative. Everyone has a story.

Tina asked me to go with her on her food distribution this time, and so we drove into the camp and again, it broke my heart. People were begging me for food – mostly onions! The shops were closed it being a Sunday, and the food from Lille wouldn’t arrive until the next day. After we had given out all we had, I ran back to my car and managed to find a local market where a pal and I bought every onion they had. You should have seen the looks on these people’s faces when we gave them out at the camp!!  I met a helicopter pilot from Afghanistan called Aminullah. He was easily one of the most beautiful human beings I have ever laid eyes on. He was in the camp because Al queida ordered him to join their forces. He refused, and so they shot his father. He still refused and so they shot his brother. They told him they would continue to shoot members of his family, until he surrounded. So he ran away. Now he is in Calais and his family are on the run. He hasn’t seen his two tiny daughters in over a year. I also met a Sudanese man who left his town when rebels came and started killing everyone. His family was scattered and he has no way of communicating with them. He was half way through a degree at home, and wants to continue his studies in the UK so that he can have half a hope of finding a job that can pay for him to start the search for his family. The media would have you believe that these two, ‘healthy, fit’ young men, are trying to take us for a ride. But nothing could be further from the truth. Everyone of them has a story. Stories that need to be heard. Everyone I met smiled at me. Everyone I met hugged me. The people I met and drank tea with and talked to all had good English. They were all well educated, with hopes and dreams and with a great deal to offer. These people have not been born into poverty. They are not used to living in this way. They are shocked and traumatised and suffering beyond measure. As we left I met a woman and her tiny son. I handed over one of my boys’ toy lions that had hitched a lift with me without my knowledge, and was nestled in my pocket. The boy’s eyes lit up and his mother’s beautiful face broke into a wide smile. I didn’t insult anyone by crying, but saved all my tears up for when I was home again.

People try to escape every night. They’ve been trying for months on end. They climb under trucks and try to sneak into lorries. The French police are EVERYWHERE though, and when they find them, which they do, they toss them back into the camp. So people sleep, they eat whatever they can, and then they try again. And again. And again. Why do these people want to come to the UK? Because they speak our language. Why else? Because the third of those who have reluctantly accepted asylum in France have reported back to those in the camp. They say that it is so awful that they are considering coming back to the ‘jungle’. Why else? Because asylum in France takes 8-9 months whereas the wait in the UK is much shorter. And why else? Because 90% of those of us who are out there helping, are British. The friendly faces that hold their hands and serve them food and sit and drink tea with them, are British. The French spray their children in the face with tear gas and fire rubber bullets at them and shout at them as if they were dogs. Would you want to stay in a country that treated you like that?images-4

In the camp currently are 40% Sudanese people, 40% Afghans, 20% of other ethnicities, all escaping different atrocities.We hear a lot about the devastating war that has destroyed Syria over the last five years. It has displaced more than 4 million people, which according to the UN Refugee Agency,  is the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation. But there are currently 14 other conflicts going on in the world, many in the Middle East and North Africa. While some politicians have said that economic migrants make up the majority of those arriving, in reality the majority are refugees fleeing extreme danger in Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. Neighboring countries such as Turkey and Lebanon have taken in Syrian refugees, but camps there remain overpopulated, forcing those people to continue on with their journey. Here in our little corner of Europe, we are facing only the tip of the iceberg. There are FAR more refugees worldwide. In fact, there are 59.5 million forcibly displaced people on our planet. That is one in every 122 people in our global population. And the countries taking in the majority of these refugees? Developing countries. Poor countries take in 86% of the world’s refugees. A figure that should make us, as the fifth richest nation in the world, hang our heads in shame.

Germany has called for a quota system to be implemented across the EU that would allow for a more even distribution of the number of refugees, with each country’s size and economic strength taken into consideration. They have said they expect to take in 800,000 refugees this year. However, Central and Eastern European states have opposed that proposal, and David Cameron rejected a plan for the UK to take in 10,000 more refugees. Cameron argued that countries needed to focus on finding solutions to the conflicts that have caused the crisis. But there are cold and hungry and desperate people who need our help NOW! My eldest, Will, wrote to the Prime Minister to ask him to at least accept the unaccompanied children, (78% of the children in Calais are alone), a request which much to our delight the PM seems to have acknowledged, although no numbers or time frames have been committed to. With traffickers pouncing on and raping vulnerable children in the camp each and every night, and 129 already missing, it is imperative that we take children in NOW. Foster parents are on standby ready to receive them. All we need is permission to allow them in.

What can you do to help? You do not have to go to Calais to be of use. You do not even need to give money if that is something you cannot do. But everyone can contact their MPs and councillors. Everyone can use their voice and their power and their freedom. And everyone should.

Did you know that 5.5 million Brits live abroad permanently? That’s one in ten of us. Did you know that Immigrants are 60% less likely to claim benefits than a British born person? Did you know that between 1995 and 2011, EU immigrants contributed £8.8 billion more than they gained? And did you know that most studies suggest that as long as the government protect low wage earners – immigration has no significant effect on overall employment or British unemployment? It’s all true. I checked. Yet despite all this, the UK processed fewer first time Asylum applications in January to March 2015 than six other EU countries.

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On my first trip out I met and spoke with Rob Laurie – the guy who was in the press after he attempted to smuggle a four year old girl back home with him to where she had an uncle who lived just streets away from his own house. He had built up a friendship with the girl’s father who had been begging him for weeks to take her back to the UK. One freezing night, she climbed inside Rob’s coat, curled up on his lap, and fell asleep. Later he said he knew he shouldn’t have done it. But unable to bear her father’s tears anymore, he carried the little girl into his van and drove her out of the camp. Sniffer dogs pounced on them at the border and found her in the sleeping compartment of his van, all tucked up, and still fast asleep. She was sent her straight back into the camp and Rob faced a six month long trial and suffered enormously before being finally let off with a thousand Euro fine. Now he drops as many donations as he can gather from his trips around the UK, at the warehouse every week.

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People are getting absolutely desperate. They are terrified and panicking and violence is escalating as it would in ANY group of people in this situation. But in their desperation to get out of the hell hole in which they are festering, more problems are springing up. People are drugging their children and stowing them away in vehicles in the hope that they will stay quiet throughout the journey should they be able to even make the trip. People are suffocating to death in their attempts to find freedom. Some do make it, but the vast majority do not. Ali, the refugee we met on our second trip, was one of the so-called ‘lucky’ ones. He managed to make it to Dover two weeks ago. After seven months of trying to escape, he eventually borrowed 2,500 Euros from his brother and paid people smugglers to help him find his way to a Spanish truck with a secret compartment and a driver who was prepared to turn a blind eye. They made it through, and with Alice’s help, sought asylum here once they arrived. The camp was physically awful, but it did offer them community and belonging. Now Ali and people like him face isolation and loneliness, as well as a huge struggle to integrate here.

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This escape story highlights the insanity of the current system – by forcibly keeping people out, we have created an illegal industry of people smuggling. Genuine people like Ali who need really asylum, are resorting to paying illegal and dangerous smugglers.  As a result, huge amounts of money is being pumped into illegal activity in the UK. So instead of pouring money into building higher fences, and more barbed wire and more sniffer dogs and a higher police presence, we must invest in improvements to our asylum system. If there is to be any hope of getting out of this, ALL authorities must start processing asylum claims safely, so that we can make sure that the people who are coming into our country are the people that really genuinely need to. Then we can give them resources we have available. But at the moment, our government are frightened and they are being governed by their fear. When Sadiq Kahn became Mayor he congratulated London on overcoming fear with hope, and choosing unity over division. This is what we must do as a nation, and we must do it now.

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I am sensitive. In the best possible way. I wake up most days feeling really happy. Because I feel so unbelievably lucky to be alive. My precious little step-sister died when she was hit by a car. She was 7. My darling cousin James was killed on his motorbike when he 28. And my gorgeous mother died from cancer when she was 42. I know how someone can be here one minute and then gone the next.  The reality of life is death. I could die tonight. Morbid, but true! We all think we have time. Maybe we do  – but maybe we don’t. So I wake up every day thinking if this is going to be my last day – I want to have made it count. And although at times I feel guilty that I have this life, the gorgeous, happy, wonderful life that so many others would KILL for, I choose to feel gratitude over guilt. Because I have a duty to those people, to treasure my life. So I choose to feel grateful and I choose to have a good time, and I choose to do good things. I choose to make it count.

Remember – the life you lead is yours down to luck, and nothing else. It just so happens that you were born into a life of freedom and safety. But it could be us in this situation. It was us, 70 years ago. So we have to look after these people in the same way we would like to be looked after, if it were us. It is pure chance, that it is not.

“The greatest secret to success and happiness, is helping other people become successful and happy.” Deepak Chopra

If you are interested in helping us help those in Calais in any way, then please ask to join our ‘Calais Support and Fundraising Network’ on Facebook to find out more.

You can also donate to the fourth Crowdfunder here:

https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/user/antonia-godber/dashboard/continued-cash-for-calais?project_live=1

 

 

Handy Hints for Minibreaking with Kids

We recently went away for the weekend. It was to be a very special treat. A family mini break if you like. My idea, (although Mr G didn’t need much convincing), and all all in all it was a huge success – amongst the tears and tantrums, episodes of car sickness, and inevitable thumping, yelling and squealing coming from the back seat on the outward journey, the weekend was peppered with unmistakeable moments of enormous well being. We went to a Family Hotel in The Countryside. Not just a place where they included fish fingers on the menu, chucked a slide in the front and declared themselves family friendly, but a REAL family hotel where families are made to feel so welcome that you are significantly less mortified by your children’s feral behaviour than you would be normally.

Everything had been thought of. There were roaring fires, squishy sofas, swimming pools and play areas. And on top of the usual bibs and highchairs, jigsaws and storybooks, there was a trampoline, nature garden, Wendy houses and most importantly, a kids club. A club for kids. A club where adults drop off their kids and leave them there. Leave them there with staff. Leave them there with staff and go off by themselves to either the spa or the bar, (or in my case, back to bed with all the complimentary biscuits). Before I had children I was hugely judgmental of people who used services like this, but as I said, that was before I had children. As you can imagine, Mr G and I were giddy at the very thought. So giddy that we got a bit carried away and booked them into each and every two hour session available. Which brings me to handy hint number one:

1. Harbour low expectations of your fellow guests.

You may well be mini breaking with families who are less desperate for a child free hour or two/to go to the loo without an audience etc, than you are. If, for example, you are keen to take advantage of the Sunday morning kids club where you can hand your offspring over to the aforementioned staff and have an actual lie in, be prepared, for there may be a ‘minimum of six children’ policy. If you do not have six children yourselves then you will need to rely on your fellow guests to sign their children up as well, in order to make up the numbers. But ‘real’ family hotels do not come cheap. In establishments as pricey as these, you may find yourself surrounded by people who regularly get lie ins due to all their nannies etc, and the danger here is that they may therefore NOT sign up for the lie in club. Take heart – those selfish gits may have shattered your dreams of a lazy Sunday morning in bed with the papers (or Grazia), but at least you will be up early enough to take full advantage of all that is on offer at breakfast.

2. Be resourceful at mealtimes.

If the stacks of mini pastries at breakfast, or the pile of (different types!) of bread rolls at supper are too hard to resist, do not even attempt to do so. This is your Weekend Away. Your Family Minibreak. You deserve it all. It is perfectly possible to take more than is strictly necessary by hiding them in the high quality, oversized napkins. You can then save them for later and get away with not giving your children lunch. This also works well with mini yoghurts and bananas.

3. Be sensible in the spa.

Whilst a full body massage may well be appealing, it will invariably be the most expensive treatment. Similarly, a facial is all well and good, but what have you actually achieved? You are far better off going for something with visible results. Get a full leg or bikini wax for maximum long term satisfaction. The girl waxing you may well be confused by your referral to the procedure as a ‘massive treat’ but she is young and childless and will not understand how wonderful it is for you to have someone else see to your body admin. For a long time afterwards you will feel great – as you would if someone scrubbed your oven for you.

4. Calm the hell down.

Yes, you may find yourselves in front of a roaring fire on a sofa so comfortable you could die there, sipping gin and tonics and chatting about current affairs (or X Faxtor contestants), with your children tucked up in bed next to a highly qualified babysitter, BUT your fellow guests most probably do this all the time. Don’t let yourselves down by squealing with joy each time the waiter brings you nibbles. Even if you didn’t order them and they are FREE. When you sit down to a three course candlelit dinner with jazz playing beautifully in the background, express your gratitude with a formal ‘thank you’, rather than actually stroking the waiting staff as they deliver food so yummy it makes your eyes roll around in your heads like marbles.

5. When it is time to leave, you have to leave.

At the end of your family mini break your children will have had a blast, made new friends (most probably called something wildly posh like Rafferty or eye wateringly trendy like Zebedee), splashed hysterically in the pool, climbed trees, run up and down staircases (all of which are actually permitted), and played in front of the fire with a train set like something out of a Boden catalogue. You will have read, napped, talked to your other half about things other than the car’s MOT, and not washed up or wiped a surface for over 48 whole hours. You will all be well fed, rested, and happy. But check out time will be upon you before you know it. Ensure you pack your bags and pay the bill without fuss. (It is not cool to practically vomit when you see the total amount.) It was all totally worth it and in approximately ten and a half years time you will have saved up enough cash to come back and do it all again. Refrain from hanging around the croquet gardens with your suitcases in a desperate fashion. Instead, bid farewell to the staff, to Rafferty and Zebedee (and the token labrador), and then drive home gracefully in your Vauxhall Zafira, ideally via a National Trust property for a romp in the grass to complete your countryside experience. It is likely that your children will fall asleep on the return journey, refreshing themselves just enough to ensure that they will not go to bed at bedtime even though they have school and nursery the next day. Save from driving down the M4 with all the windows down (an option), there is little you can do to avoid this, so make your peace with it and enjoy listening to something other than their Charlie and Lola CD. Once you are safely back inside the M25, consider engaging in a lighthearted quiz or similar so that you do not end up on the brink of divorce over which route will get you south of the river in time for X Factor the results, and Downton. And when you are finally home, embrace all the washing that being in The Countryside results in. This was your idea after all, and a ruddy good one it was too.

CONFESSIONS FROM AN HONEST MOTHER’S MEETING

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‘There shouldn’t have to be a group like this. Thank Christ that there is – but there shouldn’t have to be.” Said one of the mothers who came to my most recent postnatal meet up support group, where mothers are invited to talk candidly and with absolute honesty about their experiences and how they are feeling over a lot of coffee and cake. All sorts of things are discussed. The release is palpable – there are always tears, there is often swearing, and knowing laughter peppers each and every earnest conversation. The women leave feeling better for having shared, if not solved their problems. It only takes one honest woman to start the ball rolling – the rest follow like dominoes. No time for small talk, we are straight into the real stuff and the admissions spill out of them faster than I can pour the coffee. There most common issues, raised time and again, are teaching me so much about what it means to be a modern mother today:

I don’t know what the feck I’m doing

Of course you don’t! Long gone are the days when women learned how to be a mother by watching their mother be a mother. Long gone are the days of twelve children in each family and siblings raising siblings. When you became a mother in times gone by, you knew what to do about your ginormous leaky Dolly Parton boobs – and not because you’d attended antenatal classes – you knew because you’d seen your mother and your aunties do it countless times. You knew that you would be bleeding like a gutted fish and that your innards would feel like they’d been in a fight with a combine harvester but you also knew that you’d feel better soon. You were expecting  breastfeeding to challenge you, but you weren’t losing your mind over the early days of feeding around the clock because you knew from watching your sister and your sister in law and your auntie and your cousin that ‘this too shall pass’. You were prepared. There were relatively few shocks. But long gone are the days of learned parenting.

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Humans learn through modelled behaviour.

We learn to walk because we see other members of our pack walking. We learn how to care for babies by watching our families care for babies. We learn to breastfeed our babies by watching our families breastfeed. We watch and we learn. If we don’t get to watch, we don’t learn. Like so many other cultures still do today, the new mum of the past learnt how to be a mother through osmosis.

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The average new mum in today’s western society is not so fortunate. She hasn’t been watching her mother raise nine other babies. She hasn’t learned. She has been busy building up a career for herself in what as much as some would beg to differ, is still a man’s world.  In her spare time she has probably been busy making a home and hurriedly packing as much into her social life as she possibly can in case it’s true that once you have kids you never wear lip gloss again let alone go out to bars. Not to mention the quest to find a partner to share it all with. She hasn’t had time to watch mothers mother. She often doesn’t know what to do with a baby. Today’s new mum hasn’t even held a baby before, let alone soothed one to sleep. She doesn’t have a clue how to breastfeed. She hasn’t been able to watch anyone else do it. The only breastfeeding she has ever seen has been been shamefully hidden away underneath a feeding tent that would easily sleep six. The new mum of today hasn’t learned how to be a mother. (And to make matters worse, now that she is approaching her due date, support is thin on the ground. Her mum works full time, her aunt lives in Australia, and she doesn’t even have a bloody sister.) She reads a few books, attends antenatal classes if she can afford them, and hopes for the best. But no antenatal class in the world can prepare a mother for motherhood. (It’s the first thing I tell everyone in session one of each and every antenatal class I teach.) The only way to learn is to JUST DO IT.

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So she does it. But  there are so many shocks! The postnatal sweats for starters. Her friends won’t tell her about the sogginess and the weeping and the trailing flatulance (‘for the love of god what has happened to my BUMHOLE?’). She is yet to experience the highs that follow the lows, and so she doesn’t yet know that everything will be ok in the end – she hasn’t seen it firsthand. Her pals may have become mothers already but they only supply her with an edited version of reality – the day to day truths are unseen, and unknown.

Everyone else is nailing this mothering gig

Not so! Despite the ridiculous but true fact that society seems to think that it should all just come naturally, many, many mothers struggle. With all sorts of things. Once the mission of breastfeeding is attempted, (something as natural as breathing but as easy as juggling with soup if you have never watched and learned), she then has to face any number of dilemmas; is the baby too hot or too cold? Is he hungry? (Shit, really? Again?!) Are baby turds really supposed to look like that?? Is it normal that he sleeps that long? Why won’t she sleep? Sweet lord why is he still crying? Does anyone else’s baby sound like a stoned piglet when they sleep? Anyone? They haven’t seen mothering in action before – they don’t know. Yet the mothers that come to me for help are often the ones that are seen by everyone else, to be totally on top of everything. Don’t assume everyone else is fine – they are probably feeling just like you are right now. The competitive edge that sometimes accompanies motherhood almost always stems from insecurity. Be kind to yourself and to each other. We are all in the same boat, learning as we go along (and winging it most of the time.) No one is judging you except for you. (And if they really are judgeyjudgers – then they don’t matter.)

I resent my partner – his life hasn’t changed one bit

How the hell does the brand new mum pop to the shop for emergency crisps? What if the baby craps? (She doesn’t know yet that if he does, it doesn’t matter.) So she stays at home, crispless, watching This Morning in her pjs and wondering why it is her life which has changed one hundred thousand percent, when her partner is still sitting in his super fun office, probably eating crisps, with all his toilet trained colleagues who say interesting things all day long. Isolation creeps in, resentment builds, relationships suffer, unhappiness reigns. And no one talks about it. Antenatal groups cling to each other in united solidarity and the support is a welcome cushion. But it takes a strong woman to announce that she is feeling like a pile of shit and a brave one to ask if anyone else is.  The new mum of the past didn’t suffer in the same way. She wasn’t worried about any of these things because she’d watched her relatives go through all of it and more, and so she had tricks up her sleeve. She had an instilled confidence. The new mum of the past wasn’t resentful about staying at home. She didn’t mourn her career or worry about getting it back, because realistically, the average young mother probably didn’t have one to mourn. (Even though women are still being paid 35% less than men, women have come a long way and fought hard for the equality they deserve.) Times have moved on! We are no longer chained to the sink and we have achieved MUCH by the time our babies arrive. GO. US. It shouldn’t be a surprise to find that today’s mum may well be missing the career she worked so hard for. And if not missing it, then worrying about finding it in tatters if and when she can get back into it (not to mention her pencil skirt). She either tries to combine work and motherhood, chasing her tail and worrying about not giving her all to either job, or she stays at home and adjusts.

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And for some the adjustment is really really hard.

I’ve lost my identity – I miss my old life 

If you think about it – it’s no wonder the new mum finds the instant transition to motherhood difficult. One minute she is wearing dry clean only garments and Being Important, and then all of a sudden, she is watching daytime tv and wondering what the hell mastitis is all about and what on earth to do with her colicky newborn.  She is supposed to cope. After all, countless women before her coped. (She forgets why and how they coped. She doesn’t give herself nearly enough credit for all she is managing to achieve without having learned.) Admitting that she is struggling feels to the new mum, like she is failing. So she doesn’t. Playgroups are full of new mums pretending that they are fine. Smiling and asking about feeding whilst wishing they could suggest a trip to the pub or that they could find someone to watch Grey’s Anatomy from start to finish with.  Smiling and chatting about sleeping whilst they wish they could tell the truth – that they are bored to tears and missing their old life. The life which used to define who they were. The good news is that you are still that person! You just have a new layer now. Another string to your bow. Don’t despair when the conversations all around you seem to be baby based. (The woman next to you at the swings probably doesn’t really care whether  your kid is crawling or not. She is only asking because she thinks  you look really fun and she wants to talk to you and it’s a way in.)

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I feel like I am broken 

From what I have learned from the mothers mothering around me, those that are the happiest of campers, those who are counting the hours until bedtime each day, and from all the others in between, is that there is a deep pride in mothering. We are lionesses, hell bend on Getting It Right. Women who haven’t slept all night paint on bright smiles along with their mascara when they should be asking their mummy mates to sit with their babies while they go back to bed. Women taking PND medication do so in secret, when these brave and strong mothers should be encouraged to shout it proudly from the rooftops so as to inspire other sufferers to take the same action and find healing. The feeling of being broken is often so unfamiliar that the new mum, guilty as hell for not being as happy as she thought she would be/feels she ought to be, hides it from everyone around her. The feeling that you are broken is not known or talked about enough. The GPs aren’t visited and the medication is not handed out because women, lying breathless underneath all the pressure society places on her chest, are ashamed, and so the problem stays hidden instead of being fixed. Fertility problems may have meant that the baby took a while to arrive, and this will only add to the pressure to Love Every Minute, and the negatives feelings that ensue can be suffocating.

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I’m lonely. I’m a really nice person! But I haven’t got any mummy mates!

I became a mother six and a half years ago, and I’ve been really rather idiotically happy ever since. But I know with absolute certainty that however adorable and hilarious and fun my kids are, one of the main reasons that I am having so much fun raising them every day is because I am doing so alongside some really excellent friends. My mummy mates are incredible women; all inspire me in their own ways, and all of them together add hugely to the patchwork quilt that is motherhood, and bring so much fun to the every day. If I was doing this all on my own I would have climbed into the oven long ago. Raising babies with (real) friends, can be the difference between loving and hating this gig. If you’re feeling lonely, you’ve got to get yourself some new pals. Making new friends when you’ve had a baby basically means dating again. Be your lovely honest self at each playrgoup and park you go to, and you’ll have soul mates to last a lifetime. Be brave – ask that chick for her number. You have loads in common and you’re going to get on great.

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Happy Mummy Happy Baby. Make yourself happy. Surround yourself with other mothers whom you click with. They’re not that hard to find. Live like those in other cultures, who have far less, but for whom parenting is often much more relaxed and enjoyable!

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Our ‘developed’ culture has a lot to learn from those supposedly less advanced than us. We have been so busy developing that we have not developed the one thing that truly matters. Parenting is partly instinctive, but all the rest is learned. We are all learning as we go, doing a brand new job with zero training. So go easy on yourself. Give yourself a break. Tell everyone how you are feeling. Ask for help. Be honest. Share your feelings, and your experiences. Learn from those ahead of you – just like in the good old days. And as your own experiences earn you the confidence that you have wanted all along, share that confidence with someone else. Ditch the feeding tent. Bypass the baby small talk at playgroup. Ask the new mum how she is reallyfeeling. Set up an honest mums group like mine. Or even better, turn whatever conversation you are having, wherever you are, into an Honest Mother’s Meeting.

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PS: And once in a while, talk about something other than being a mother!

BRAIN GROWERS: WHY LOVE IS EVERYTHING

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Did you know that when a baby is born less than one third of his brain has developed? Did you know that the rest of her brain grows during the first three years of life?

But brains do not grow like cabbages do. They need a lot more than water and sunshine. Your brain is no cabbage. Brains need LOVE. Brains need YOU. Without responsive human interaction, ideally in the form of a besotted mummy and daddy, baby brains cannot grow.

Brain surgeons are all well and good but if you think about it, when they set to work, their material is already provided and set out right there in front of them. They have something to work with. But you actually GROW that thing. You grow it day in and day out, and it takes you three years. Without you, brain surgeons would be nothing. (Time to update those CVs ladies and gentlemen.)

Most living things require very few things to grow. But humans are not like most living things. We are the most dependent species the world has ever known. As I mentioned in a previous post on The Fourth Trimester, a human newborn is needier than any other. Whilst a horse or sheep can jump up and skip about straight after birth, it takes a human baby half a year to even sit up. Without a competent older person to care for and love them, no human baby would ever learn to walk let alone communicate, think or even feel.

The human baby is not born with a massively underdeveloped brain just so that it can ‘fit’ (read squeeeeeeze) out of Mama’s exit. Ingeniously, the remaining two thirds of the baby’s brain is grown after it has been born, so that the infant can be programmed to suit the place and time that it is going to be growing up in – giving it as much flexibility as it can to adapt to its own particular environment. You wouldn’t catch babies living in outer Mongolia reaching for their mothers iPhones in Starbucks and neither would you find babies born in inner city London playing happily with snowballs in an igloo in the middle of the Arctic. Each baby arrives with literally no expectations, and then adapts readily to whichever environment it has been born into, and can do so because its brain is shaped as it goes along. Its like one of those holidays you book when you are young and stupid – you’re not fussy about the location and have no idea of what the hotel will be like. All you care about is sunshine, food and booze. Everything else is a big game of wait and see.

A brand new human baby is COMPLETELY accepting of ANY time or place he or she was born into. Whether he was born in a slum or in a castle, in the backstreets of Victorian London or on the planes of Africa, yesterday, or 4,000 years ago, each baby gets on with the business of growing up wherever, or whenever it happened to be doing so, no questions asked. What a little legend.

A baby is born with only the basics; it knows how to breathe and how to suck and not much else. Babies are blank slates. Nature has designed them this way so that they can adjust to the human species’ rapidly and constantly changing ways of life. Each one is a fresh new page, and ALL OURS to write on.

When your baby makes a face at you, your face responds in just the right way, without you having to even think about it. You respond even if it’s not even your baby – try NOT smiling at the baby grinning at you from the shopping trolley in the queue for the checkout. You respond without having to even think about it, you instinctively smile and coo and make silly high pitched noises – you were programmed to when you were loved as a tiny child. You are history repeating itself.

Parents are actual Brain Growers. Big job. The hugeness of this responsibility is enough to make any parent want to lie down in a dark room because our parenting has a huge effect on our children’s future happiness and ability to form relationships. (No pressure.) An extreme example of what happens when the job is not done right is the Romanian orphans who were left alone in their cots. Only their physical needs were seen to, their emotional needs were not met, they were not held or touched, kissed or cuddled and so their brains simply DID NOT GROW. There were HOLES where their brains were supposed to be.

Love grows brains.

If you are a parent of an under three, you are growing a brain right now. And, happily, it’s really quite hard to get it wrong or mess it up. Although it is no walk in the park, parenting is not rocket science either. The good news is that you are already doing ALL the right things. You have been since the minute you met your little one. You ARE growing little brains, and doing a beautiful job of it. From birth, each hug and kiss and smile, each cuddle and look of reassurance, each feed and each change is a learning experience.  You are teaching your baby how to communicate and how to relate to other human beings. Everything you are doing right now is helping your baby to develop their senses into emotions, and then into thoughts. You are building your toddler’s resilience. Mummy makes it better = I am optimistic! It will be ok in the end! I will bounce back!

During your baby’s second year you are helping him to develop a healthy conscience. From month 12 to month 24, you are growing the part of the brain they will need many years from now when someone pisses them off at work. Because of what you are doing now, guiding your tot through the rights and wrongs of their world, they will know not to smack their colleague around the head with their computer in the future. You are giving them the gift of social skills. Can’t buy those on Amazon.

All the things that come naturally to you; smiling, talking, playing with, comforting and LOVING your baby, all those things are growing their brains. Your touch, the smell of you, your warm presence. It’s all they require. You do not need to be doing anything else. When nappy changes are a game instead of a chore. When you sing and tickle and snuggle. When you run a little commentary on what you are doing when you go about your daily jobs. When you make baths and walks fun. When you effortlessly ENJOY your baby, you are firing up millions of connections in their brains. Your vital love and affection is shaping the person they will become.

Of course there is nature and there is nurture. Everyone is different and everyone is born exactly who they are. Every baby is born with the ability to learn a language. Nature. Babies learn however, whichever languages they are taught. Nurture. The potential is there when they arrive. We shape that potential. We are the nurturers.

We teach our babies how to relate to other humans, and how to love, through our loving of them.  That is why we take such care when choosing childcare if we need it; we need to ensure that the person that looks after our child is LOVING THEM rather than just feeding and watering them. Without love a baby cannot become the person they are supposed to be.

Our babies learn how to trust through trusting us. They gain confidence. They become optimistic and therefore resilient. Our love teaches them that good will prevail. Our love grows the part of the brain that provides them with emotional intelligence – the most important skill they will ever need. More learning and growth happens during the first three years of life than at any other stage of child or adulthood – yet it is completed without any real awareness and with none of the stresses of school with all its flashcards, tests and exams. Make sure you are giving yourself enough credit for all that you are managing to do for your child during their first three critical years. (Consider taking yourself out for some wines.)

A happy parent means a happy child. Which is why in today’s western world, which is so far removed from other cultures and times where children were raised by many, many family members, clustered around the child and available constantly to love and support the parents, loving and supporting the parents around us today, is so important. We must notice if a fellow parent is unhappy, struggling, exhausted and weary from loving so much. We must see if they are suffering and joy-less. We must spot potential post-natal depression, and we must help. Because support is vital when a job is this important. We must look after ourselves, and we must look after each other.

BRAIN GROWERS! Never underestimate the amazingness of what you are doing for your little people, every minute of every day.

EXERCISING WITH BABY

Sometimes I wish I was one of those people. The type who ‘tidy up as they go along’ and ‘ruthlessly de-clutter’ every week. My house would look a lot less like it just got hit by a typhoon. Actually I don’t, because my children are professional mess makers who can trash rooms in minutes and so it would be a constant tidying job (yawn), which would leave precious little time for more important things like cuddling them all and watching telly. Also when inside other peoples clean and tidy houses I am (a) tense, (b) instantly exhausted at the thought of having to keep my sticky, dirty children from touching anything and (c) suspicious – how? Much better to have toys scattered, smeary windows and crumbs on the work tops because it makes guests feel more relaxed.

 

Occasionally I wish I was one of those mothers who didn’t bribe their pre-schooler with magnums and chewits. But I’m not, and it’s not so bad.

But honestly, truly, I do wish I was one of those people who loved doing exercise. It would be so great. Mr G is one of those people. When I was first getting to know him I assumed he was pretending, as a way of impressing me. Oooo I’m so fit and healthy. But it’s been over ten years and he still loves a good run and goes to the gym without anyone even suggesting it. And it’s not just so he can buy fancy lycra exercise kit – he darts about in his stinky old school PE kit for most of the time.

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I know about the endorphins and all the feel-good-afterwards jazz, I just want those things without having to run about. Everything jiggles and I can’t be arsed. Except – when it’s with Tess. Tess is one of my favourite people. She runs postnatal fitness classes on the common at the top of our road. You take your baby with you and they sit in the buggy receiving lots of lovely fresh air while you jump about so it kind of doubles up as an outdoor playgroup. It’s brilliant, even for an exercise-phobe like me. And I’ll tell you for why:

* Your baby doesn’t have to be quiet. (I still shiver when I think of the Pilates class my baby ‘sang’ through.)

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* Tess tells you what to do, so there is no need to think. Constant reminders to suck your tummy in and squeeze your pelvic floor are included in the price. (I often wish that there was a tiny weeny Tess who could live in my ear.) You can’t talk yourself out of doing it and slump back into the changing rooms as you would at the gym – and actually the thought never occurs to you. This is mainly because:

* You get to hang out with other mums and chat. Because you don’t have to think about what you’re doing, you can just do it whilst having a (bit of a puffy) chat. Ace. (You’ll have noticed that this never ever happens when you put a fitness DVD on at home. Davina is all well and good but the conversation is pretty one way.)

* When Tess makes you run around she stays with the buggies and makes all the babies happy. Better than leaving them with randoms in a gym creche (and paying for the privilege), no? Tess is a mummy too.  She loves babies and she’ll really love yours. Also, she knows her shit about exercising after you’ve had a baby, which is handy because I do not know mine. She differentiates effortlessly between those hardcore mamas who want to work up a sweat and those who want a more gentle pace (me), so the class is always tailored to the women attending it.

* Most of the time you are jumping/squatting/lunging/planking (ouch) etc next to your baby so you can pop raisins in his or her mouth while you do it.

* Other people look at you and think that you are cool. (This is what I tell myself.)

* It’s over before you know it. Suddenly, it’s stretchy time and you’ve been exercising for AN HOUR. And your body feels all compliant and relaxed and you feel massively virtuous. You are now One Of Those People – and you didn’t even have to try.

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* The next day your thighs tell the story of the day before – and you can pat yourself on the back. (Because now you will be able to reach as you’re so stretchy and bendy.)

* You learn tricks for every day use – on many of my four million trips up and down the staircase each day I often hear Tess’ gentle voice in my ear (maybe she does have a little version of herself in there?) telling me to ‘engage my core’ and stuff like that. So I do. Now, I’m never going to get my eighteen year old tummy back, but bit by bit, day by day, my estranged stomach muscles are at least making an effort to become reunited.

* At the end, there is basically a party. We end up where we started – at the cafe. And because of all the fun and chatting, everyone is keen to continue the fun and chatting and so they stop for a bit of cake and a latte and a natter. Party in my book nowadays.

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* With the school holidays on the horizon it’s good to know that in the summer, we stay on the common all day. Picnic lunches appear and everyone lazes about on the grass in the sunshine instead of going home and doing the washing.  The big kids climb trees and the little ones crawl about and it’s heavenly.

I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’re local then come and join us on Tooting Common. Tess is at the cafe every Monday and Thursday from 10am. (See Train Happy Mums for more information.) And if you’re not from round these parts, find a local outdoor mum and baby class near to you and get your trainers on. You’ll love it, and your bambino will too!