Random Musings: On Mattering

dance cartoon

I recently reviewed an excellent and highly readable academic textbook by Caroline Magennis, Northern Irish Writing After The Troubles. One of the quotes I pulled from it set me thinking.

“To move your body out of pleasure is to assert that you think your body matters. That you matter. It is an assertion of pleasure, of pride and of autonomy.”

This was on dancing, which Ian Paisley preached was sinful. Growing up as I did in Northern Ireland, many pleasurable activities were regarded this way. Sex was the obvious one. At home, at school and at church it was drummed into girls that to indulge in sexual activity would be to bring down not just the wrath of God but also shame on the family – one of the worst things it was possible to do. No mention was made of consent. Short skirts were an indication that the girl was up for it. Boys were portrayed as creatures incapable of controlling their urges. Looking at pictures of myself as a teenager, I often dressed like a middle aged woman.

At this point I will admit that, having escaped to England and lived to be a middle aged woman, I now regularly wear short skirts. It took a long time for me to understand that my sex life should be nobody else’s concern.

What really hit me in the quote above was that it alleged a woman could matter. This, to me, was radical thinking. Women existed to serve – the family, the Lord, husband and children. To consider self was selfish, frowned upon.

In Belfast I was expected to be a good girl, to keep secret any behaviours deemed suspect such as drinking alcohol. This, despite the fact my parents and their friends were regular imbibers. Many aspects of how we lived were certainly never to be mentioned when duty visiting the wider family. It made it hard to have natural conversations with them.

It was expected that, in time but while still young, I would marry a nice boy from a similar background. Not too rich as his family’s affluence would make my parents feel inferior. Not too poor as my parents had successfully risen from this. And definitely not a Catholic, although no other religion was even considered a possibility.

It was vital that, on marriage, I hold on to my husband. To this end, staying thin was more important than academic or professional attainment. Throughout my life, my mother expressed more delight when I lost weight than any other of my achievements. I was expected to be submissive and pleasing – in looks and behaviour.

At a work team building event I was once asked to share with the group something I was proud of achieving. I could think of nothing except pride was a sin. In many ways I had done everything my parents asked of me, other than stay in Ireland. I could never shake the need to please – not a bad thing in itself, of course, but beneath that is the belief that my needs and desires do not matter greatly.

My English mother-in-law had an unshakeable belief in the rightness of her opinions. This attitude entirely flummoxed me. Women deferred, took up as little space as possible, whilst ensuring others’ wishes were met without fuss. When I occasionally pushed back, refusing to do something that was expected of me as I recognised it would be personally damaging, my perceived selfish intransigence caused rifts that may never fully heal.

To matter requires that one be valued. To this day I struggle to accept that I am worth anything more than the services I provide. I know I am loved but am less sure of being intrinsically valued for what I am as an individual. Being of use brings me pleasure, but to be able to dance through life without being derided must feel amazing.

Another book I reviewed recently, Aurochs and Auks, placed humans in the wider context of our planet – just one species among many, although highly damaging in our behaviour. This chimed with me. It matters how we behave because of the potential damage caused by self-entitlement, to our life support system and also each other. My upbringing focused on being pleasing for the benefit of church and family. Perhaps to add value, and therefore to matter, is to live more in tune with our place in all the spaces we impact.

A tribute to my parents (from the Belfast Telegraph)

Those who follow me on social media may be aware that my parents both died at the end of last month within a few days of each other. Soon after, I agreed to be interviewed by a journalist from the newspaper Mum read for many years – the Belfast Telegraph – as part of a series they are running paying tribute to local people whose deaths were attributed to Covid 19. I would like to thank Claire McNeilly for her respectful handling of this interview at a time when I was still processing what had happened. I reproduce below the article she wrote – in case it is taken down, as I wish to keep it. A link to the original on-line version may be found here.

(It did feel a little strange to discover we had made the front page of the print edition, pictured above)

 

Coronavirus: ‘Mum and dad were old but stayed home and didn’t go out… we never expected this to happen’

Daughter of Belfast couple who died within days of each other tells of her deep shock


Jackie Law on her wedding day with husband Rick and her parents Norman and Winnie Wilkinson

By Claire McNeilly

May 04 2020 09:30 PM

 

When Jackie Law visited her parents in January, she could not have imagined it would be the last time she would see them.

Norman Wilkinson (91) and his 92-year-old wife Winnie, who lived in the Four Winds area of Belfast, died within a few days of each other after contracting Covid-19.

Norman passed away on April 25 just hours after being admitted to hospital.

His wife of nearly 69 years clung to life for another five days but died last Thursday, April 30.

Both were cremated, with Winnie’s service taking place yesterday morning.

And heartbroken daughter Jackie (55), who lives in Wiltshire, was left to grieve at home.

“We couldn’t get over [to Belfast] because no one could travel so there was no funeral service as such,” she told the Belfast Telegraph.

“My dad was cremated on Thursday, while my mum’s cremation was yesterday morning.”

Mrs Law, a book reviewer, told how her older sister Elaine Stead (58), who lives in Belfast, broke the news about her dad’s death before she even knew that he had fallen ill.

“Obviously they were both quite old and they had underlying health issues but it all happened so quickly,” she said.

“They were in their house, they didn’t go out. We certainly didn’t expect this to happen.”


Norman and Winnie as a young couple

Jackie, who has three children – Robyn (23), Ben (21) and Patrick (19) – with her IT consultant husband Rick (57), said her elderly parents were respecting the lockdown restrictions and “had carers going in regularly”.

She also reflected on how the speed of their demise shocked both her and her siblings – Andrew (67), who is retired and lives in Australia with his wife Colleen, and mum-of-three Elaine, who has twin sons Gavin and Jonny (29) and a daughter Nikki (23), with husband Gary.

“They took ill suddenly at home; they became very, very sleepy,” she said.

“My sister went up the weekend before my dad died. She was very concerned.

“But, of course, with the lockdown you’re not allowed to spend time with people so it was the carers who were going in and looking after them.

“And once they realised dad wasn’t well, they called the ambulance.”

Jackie said that after the carers informed her sister “that my dad and my mum had been taken to hospital” Elaine contacted her as soon as possible to let her know what was happening.

“Dad went into hospital around 5pm on Saturday and he was dead three hours later so by the time my sister got in touch with me he had already passed away,” she said.

“She told me at that time that mum was also ill so from then onwards we were in touch regularly but there was nothing anybody could do.”

Jackie told how her parents came to be taken to hospital on the same day.

“My dad started having trouble breathing on Saturday April 25 – the day he died – and the ambulance was called,” she said.

“But after the paramedics examined dad they were concerned for mum as well so they both went in at that time.”

She added: “My dad lost consciousness in the ambulance and he died a few hours later, whereas my mum was in hospital for a few days and was being treated before she passed away.”


From right, Jackie and Rick with sons Ben and Patrick and daughter Robyn

Unfortunately, Jackie’s Belfast-based sister did not see their mother in hospital either because she was never well enough to receive visitors.

“Mum was unconscious for most of the time, even though she was in hospital getting treatment,” she said.

“My sister was talking to the doctors regularly over the telephone.

“Mum came round a couple of times but never enough to be coherent and never long enough for my sister to be called to go in and see her.”

Speaking to this newspaper just hours after her mother’s cremation, an emotional Jackie said she was “still in shock”.

“We’re in limbo; everything has sort of stopped,” she said.

“I don’t know how long the grieving process is going to take.

“With not being able to go over and not being able to hold any sort of memorial for them at this stage, it’s all a bit surreal.”

Jackie, who has lived in England since 1988, revealed that she used to write letters to her parents and she said it would be difficult not being able to continue that ritual.

“I used to write to my parents a lot,” she said.

“They didn’t have a computer; they weren’t comfortable with technology, so ever since I left Northern Ireland I’ve written them letters.”

She added: “When little things happen I’m still storing them in my head, thinking that ‘I must put that in a letter because mum will be interested’ and it’s strange to think that those letters will never get written now.”

At least, as she revealed, she still has a collection of all the letters they sent her.

“I’ve got a drawer of bits and pieces that they’ve sent me over the years,” she said.

Her last visit to Belfast in January with husband Rick will always remain a source of great comfort for Jackie.

“We spent mum’s birthday with her on January 26,” she said.

“We bought her flowers and helped celebrate with her. We all sat around and chatted as that was what she wanted to do.

“I’m just so glad we went over, given the lockdown and everything, it was probably very well timed.

“I would’ve felt terrible if I hadn’t seen them so recently.”

She also revealed how her children paid their grandparents a visit the month before, in December 2019, because “they knew they were going to be tied up with exams in January”.

When it comes to memories of her beloved mother, Jackie, a short story writer, said that she will always think about her green fingers.

“She loved her garden,” she said.

“When I think back to what she was like, I think about her in the garden.

“She loved to bring colours to her garden with flowers and she liked to keep it tidy.”

Jackie also told how her parents enjoyed their walks and she said that they “kept doing that even when they could only walk up the road and down again”.

“She loved to visit Botanic Gardens in Belfast,” she added.

“In their younger years, once my dad retired, they loved their holidays and they always spoke fondly of them.”

She added that her mum, who trained as a seamstress, “had to leave school at 14 but when she had her children she was able to work as a dressmaker from home”.

Jackie said her father worked for the Northern Ireland Electricity Service from “after he left school until he retired”.

Describing him as a “quiet man” she said he “enjoyed classical music, reading books and the theatre”, adding that he had a great fondness for chess.

“He played a lot of chess and he played the piano,” she said.

“The soundtrack to my childhood is my dad playing classical music on the piano.

“One thing I find… whenever I hear classical music I know the piece because I’ve heard my dad play it but I don’t know what it is. The house was always full of his music.”

Even in sadness, Jackie, who has been a stay-at-home mum since the birth of her first child, said her parents’ pride in their grandchildren will endure.

“They lived long lives and they took great pride in their six grandchildren,” she said.

“Mum was always talking about how pleased she was that they all got to university.

“She was one of nine children and most of them went to work in factories as soon as they left school.

“They’ve done more with their lives but that’s initially where they started out.”

Jackie added: “Mum was so proud that all six of her grandchildren got to university.”

 

Belfast Telegraph

 

 

Following the publication of this tribute I was approached by local television (UTV) and radio (The Nolan Show) requesting interviews. I chose to decline these invitations. 

 

Random Musings: Whose story?

oldpeople

I live in a country where the standard greeting is a variation on ‘How are you?’, where nobody expects the response to be anything other than ‘I’m fine’. Even when we visit a doctor we automatically make this claim despite our presence in the surgery proving it cannot be entirely true. We choose to be regarded as fine by the wider world because anything else requires the sharing of personal information. To offer our health or circumstances as a subject for discussion runs the risk of the details imparted being shared further afield. We lose control of the narrative. Our carefully guarded privacy is invaded.

Last week I was recalled to my old homeland by my sister. She had been coping for some time with our elderly parents’ deteriorating health and it had all become too much for her to bear alone. I am the youngest of three siblings but my sister is the only one who has remained close to where we were raised, where my parents still live in the old family home. The practical demands all fall to her and have done for many years.

I flew over within twenty-four hours of her call. I joined my sister in her daily rounds of parental visits and medical appointments, quickly becoming aware and empathising with the pressures she has recently faced. I offered practical advice on potential ongoing strategies. I was accused of being hard hearted. With only a few days available before I returned to England I was aware that my input could only be of limited use.

And it hurts to be unable to give parents what they want. It hurts to see them suffer and to be accused of not doing enough to ease their distress. They are being forced to accept the support that is best for their current needs but which removes much of the autonomy they have enjoyed throughout the sixty-five years of their marriage. There are no easy answers to the challenges of declining health and aging.

My sister and I spent many hours discussing the situation. Sharing helps. But I am under orders not to share too much. This is my story but also theirs. As someone who processes the complexities of life through writing, putting thoughts on paper that I may try to make sense of the myriad emotions churning around in my head, I find the requested silence creates feelings of desolation.

I am burdened with a fear of selfishness for these thoughts when my sister faces the greater challenge of proximity.

We willingly shoulder our responsibilities for loved ones – husbands and children as well as parents. We try to find a workable balance in how much we give to each. We do not always agree on what is reasonable.

When under pressure it sometimes becomes necessary to admit that all is not fine. Many open up to close friends, I rely on filling a blank page. If ownership of my story is taken from me, so too is the comfort of release.

A Death in the Family

 

I have been neglecting my blog recently. This is why.

My mother-in-law died last week. Cancer, so not unexpected, still distressing. She was much loved and will be missed by family and friends. She is the first of my children’s grandparents to pass away.

She and her three brothers were raised by their single mother after her father was killed in the war when she was very young. She suffered ill health as a child resulting in mobility issues throughout her life. This did not stop her enjoying tea dances and the pleasures of travel. She was curious within her known parameters, sociable. She liked to go out and about.

She was still a teenager when she married. Their two children arrived within sixteen months of each other, a boy and then a girl. She chose to return to paid work, sharing childcare with her husband who worked shifts. She felt it important that a woman retain a degree of financial independence, an escape fund, and berated me when I entrusted all my worldy wealth to her son.

On retirement they moved house to be close to where we live. This was soon after my second child was born. I believe she would have helped more with our children had I asked. I was hugely protective of my cubs.

Throughout their lives she and her husband worked and saved and invested their money. She told me many times that she intended to enjoy what they had earned. They would eat out, meet up with family and friends, make regular trips to shops. It was a remove from the thrift in which I was raised.

My in-laws owned a touring caravan when I first knew them. They sold this to buy a static expecting us to use it as well. We did once, but it was not for me. So many of the activities she enjoyed were not for me. I believe she struggled to comprehend what I was.

They went on cruises, city tours and short breaks to comfortable hotels. After retirement they enjoyed lengthy trips to the antipodes, suggesting once that we may wish to relocate. She urged us to travel more, perhaps forgetting the challenges children present. We were happy enough as we were.

Everywhere they went they would make friends, actively keeping in touch when they returned home. On the occasions we were introduced, these friends appeared very much like them.

My mother-in-law was a skilled cook. She and her husband regularly entertained. My children appreciated the dishes she prepared, especially given my inability to produce anything so tasty.

Her enthusiasm for her hobbies – flower arranging and then quilting – took her into the heart of the local community. She helped to run clubs, organise events. She believed it was important to have a hobby and poured time and resources into improving her skills. She took classes; bought magazines, tools and materials; shared tips with fellow enthusiasts. I was presented with many beautiful flowers over the years. She made each family member a personalised quilt. The end results of her talent and creativity were impressive.

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From time to time she would invite me, and then my daughter, to local craft events but we had no desire to become involved. She did not invite my husband or sons.

When she berated one of my boys for kicking out at his sister during a squabble, forcefully stating that he should never kick a girl, I felt compelled to correct the admonishment. He should never kick anyone. I raised my children to be equals.

My memories of my mother-in-law are not entirely positive and this saddens me. We viewed life differently, in outlook and priorities. I sometimes felt she was trying to make me more like her. I do not know how she felt about me.

Her bar seemed so high. I did not have my children potty trained at eighteen months as she had managed. I did not seek her advise on childcare despite how well she considered she had raised her own children. She told me that mine were spoiled, an accusation they deny. She did take pride in their achievements.

My husband bore the brunt of our differences. He juggles the demands of the ladies in his life as best he can.

The last few years of his mother’s life were dogged by various health issues yet she remained stoic. It has been difficult for her husband and children to watch her decline. Whatever our personal frictions, she was mother to my husband, grandmother to my children. Her memory will live on in them.

 

Random Musings: On loving and letting go

Seventeen years ago today I gave birth to my elder son. His birth was a very civilised affair. My labour got going in the morning, not too early, so the neighbour who had offered to take my daughter could be summoned without getting her out of bed. It was the weekend so my husband was available to drive me to the hospital. I was admitted, walked around a little, and then pushed my son out just before lunch with no more histrionics than are absolutely necessary to birth a child. He was a healthy, 8lb boy. Once we were cleaned up there was no reason to stay in the hospital so we went home to introduce him to his sister. That afternoon the football team my husband supported won the FA Cup. It was a good day. In so many people’s eyes that was our family complete; a girl and a boy, less than sixteen months apart in age.

Unlike his sister, my second child was an easy baby to care for. Determined to get it right this time I managed to breast feed him for his first year. He would sleep between feeds, or lie within sight of me without grizzling. He seemed settled and happy. There was no jealousy from my daughter. She took the new addition to our family in her stride.

These two children have always been close. When one wished to try a new sport or club the other would go along too. Thus they played football, learned to ride, became Scouts, joined the hockey club, trained at judo together. They were active, intelligent and eager to learn. Early on they developed a strong sense of fair play and became frustrated at the injustices meted out by the adults charged with their care. School was a trial, not for the work which they found so easy and repetitive it often bored them, but for the culture of favouritism.

I wished for my son to enter school early but was denied. When his teachers complained that he did not concentrate in class I pointed out that he always knew the answers to their questions and perhaps needed to be stretched more. They labelled me a difficult mother. Perhaps I am.

The other mothers regarded my son as undisciplined and blamed me. His energy and constant questions appeared to them as rude, unacceptable behaviour. He would stand up for himself against the bullies, their mothers blaming him for aggression although he never went to far. He bruised egos rather than limbs.

Our family unit folded into itself and I shouldered the criticisms as nagging guilt, sure that I was doing what was right for my children but concerned that society would quash their potential with demands for conformity. We had fun, so much fun, but only when alone.

At four years old my son could swim a length of the pool and ride a two wheeled bike. At eight years old we bought him hiking boots and climbed a mountain. He and his sister would storm ahead, eager to meet the next challenge. My husband took them in hand while I lagged behind with their little brother, just as willing but, due to his lesser age and size, never quite as able.

At some point in his teens my elder son’s intelligence overtook mine. How difficult it must be for a child to discover that a parent is not the font of knowledge they have previously appeared to be. I wonder if he felt tricked.

These days I watch my son through the filter he has erected between us. When he chooses I am allowed a glimpse of his world. I see that he has friends, that school has worked him out and can now offer him the opportunity to learn. At home he teaches himself through the resources available on line.

I remain a disappointment to him. Despite having been accepted into university to study Maths I cannot answer his queries on a subject whose challenges he adores. Despite having worked in the IT industry for a decade I cannot teach him to code. He does not understand why I spend my days as I do when he sees that there is so much to learn. He does not understand that my learning is of a more nuanced nature.

I know that the teenage years can be challenging for both parent and child. I ponder if this is nature’s way of enabling independence, making it easier for both to let go. I recognise that I am lucky in so many ways. My son does not indulge in nefarious activities. He enjoys sports, the company of like-minded friends, academic pursuits.

I miss the regard he once had for me. My sadness is selfish. I want for myself, to be a part of his world. He is doing just fine on his own.

As we celebrate this birthday I remember the little boy who once took me by the hand and showed me his world. I hope that, in time, he will allow me to share in a part of it again.

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Random Musings: The bad daughter

“When your mother asks, “Do you want a piece of advice?” it’s a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no. You’re going to get it anyway.” (Erma Bombeck)

The UK is currently basking in a mini heatwave. It is glorious. All around me women are casting aside their winter boots and snuggly jumpers in favour of linens, colour and shades. I have cast aside my cardigan. Being overweight I do not have the luxury of selecting from the new spring ranges as they are rarely made to sit well on someone of my bulk. Frustrating though this may be I dare not complain. After all, I only have myself to blame for my excess weight.

Next week I will be flying to Belfast to visit my parents. I am not looking forward to it. My mother has been unwell and I have not been across the water since the summer of 2012. I know that a visit is long overdue but I have been putting it off, mainly because of my weight.

The last time I visited I was a UK size 12. Now I am a UK size 16. It took me nine months of severe food limitation and strenuous, daily exercise to get to the size I was then. When my mother saw me she was so happy, delighted that I had become the shape that she thinks a woman should be. She congratulated me on my weight loss with more enthusiasm than she had offered when I graduated from university or gave birth to my babies. She reflected on how pleased my husband must be to have a slim wife. My husband knows me better than to comment on my weight. I am what is inside.

That is not to say that I did not enjoy being slim. It was a revelation to be able to go into clothes shops and easily buy almost any outfit. I had so much more energy, understandable as I no longer had to carry around a 30lb sack of fat wherever I went. The problem was that I could not maintain that weight. As soon as I started to eat more normally or neglected to spend two hours a day at the gym the weight crept back on, slowly but incessantly.

Yes, I now eat too much of the wrong sorts of food but in the early stages of my weight gain I was simply eating what was recommended rather than subsisting on one small meal a day. With a little self discipline I could be less fat but it takes a huge amount of effort to be slim. It takes over my life.

I feel sad that I avoid my mother. I know that she loves me but looks have always been important to her, much more so than they have ever been to me. She wants only what is best for me but as a means to this tries to mould me in her image. I resist as I have always done. She believes that I am being difficult, feels hurt that I will not agree with her point of view. It is easier to stay away.

The easy option is not always the right one. My mother is elderly and has many health problems. It is right that I, as her daughter, make the effort to visit. She is, however, also a worrier. I wonder if seeing me as I am now will trigger ongoing concerns that negate any good that my visit may do. I wonder if her well meaning comments, the inevitable but unasked for advice, will trigger my own anxiety.

In the middle of all this is my sister who, as the only sibling now living nearby, shoulders the burden of care for our parents. She is good to them in a way that I could never be. I am not a good daughter but this does not make me a bad person, just not the person that the family I grew up with wants me to be.

Families are tricky because we care so much; the hurt we can inflict cuts deeper. If I could easily lose the weight for my mother then I would do so. Perhaps this is why I have stayed away for so long. Perhaps I wished to give her that gift and have been avoiding facing up to her reaction to my failure.

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Random Musings: Family and other pressures

My most recent read, Diary of a Diva, was deliberately chosen because it sounded very different to the types of book that I would normally pick. I wanted to stretch myself beyond the zone that I knew I would feel comfortable with. It has certainly given me plenty of food for thought, and in directions that I did not expect.

The protagonist in this non fiction book is very close to her family. She talks of daily phone calls and regular, large gatherings. Although she does not have any children of her own, indeed there was a suggestion that she has banned children from her home, she regularly shares the minutiae of her life with those she grew up with, her parents and siblings. To choose to do this is beyond my comprehension.

Within my circle of family and friends there are those who will talk regularly about anything and everything with their wider families. I know that this happens, I just do not know why. To me, my family is my husband and my three children. I feel blessed to still have living parents and siblings, in laws and other family relations, but they are each fed only occasional, edited highlights of my life. I was raised to fear ‘letting the family down’ with my behaviour. I learned young to hide what may be frowned upon, sharing detail equated to bringing shame on those I cared for.

It has been said that the most important thing that parents can teach their children is how to get along without them. I have always known beyond a measure of a doubt that I am loved by both of my parents. They have been there for me throughout my life, whatever I have chosen to do, actively supporting me in thought and deed. Since I moved out of their home though, I have never felt the need to involve them in the detail. I have no wish to answer to their whims, to be the person that they have tried to mould me to become. I will always keep in touch but I will live my life as I choose.

I may not understand why others regularly involve their parents in their lives, but that is their choice. What irritates is when they suggest that I should do as they do. I have chosen independence over codependence. I do not attempt to influence their desire to share, and resent any suggestion that I should follow suit.

None of this is an indication of past treatment or love, I do not measure love in such terms, neither do I buy into the idea that children owe their parents anything. I would like to think that my children will choose to spend some time with me when they are adults, but I accept that, should they marry and have children of their own, then their priorities will change. It is my view that their new family’s needs should always take precedence over mine.

I wonder if the old in law jokes emerged because adult children did not feel able to cut the cord. Then I wonder if needs are simply different. I am comfortable with a certain distance, but that is no reason why such a state of affairs may suit others. Just as I do not wish to be berated for my choices, so I must take care not to judge others based on my personal, core beliefs. Let us celebrate difference, live and let live.

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Summer hiatus

I will go back to my book blogging soon, but so much is happening just now, life, and I am not reading as much as I would like. I have a fabulous pile of books that I am excited about getting through. Time though, I need more time. And space. I am sorely lacking in a space to call my own.

Husband has been out of work for a little over a month. With no signs of paid employment on the horizon he is doing his best to enjoy the sunny weather, and I am doing my best not to worry. He wants to be more active than the rest of us desire so I am peace keeper, trying to balance everyone’s requests. Compromise rarely leaves anyone feeling truly satisfied.

The three teenagers are doing their thing: sleeping late, staying up into the wee small hours, emptying the fridge of food and appearing with random demands at moments of their choosing. They are fine and good, although as scathing of my efforts as ever. I feel so busy. What they see is me working away with no worthwhile goal that they can discern.

My fiction writing has had to be shelved for now, I miss the places it took me. It requires periods of peace and quiet that are not currently available in my full house. It requires a state of mind that I have not got the space to acquire. With my family around all the time I am regularly reminded just how little they regard what I do. They see my purpose as to cook and clean, to service their needs. Mostly I choose to comply.

Yet I do so much more and this matters to me. I have completed the history course that I was studying on line with the University of Leicester. I have set up the book sharing initiative which will enable me to regularly distribute books amongst the travelling public in my area over the coming weeks and months (see @BooksAsYouGo on Twitter). I have read and reviewed some fabulous books, receiving welcome feedback from authors and publishers that my efforts are appreciated.

It feels good to be appreciated.

Husband wants me to go on more walks, to enjoy days out to places of interest, to join him at the gym or the swimming pool. Sometimes it feels as though he wants me to be more like him. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these activities, but perhaps not as often as he would like.

We have had our away days. They have been enjoyable even when I have had to work my socks off to keep everyone cheerful, not always entirely successfully. Sometimes I try so hard and realise afterwards that nobody required it of me, that it was unnecessary.

I feel an undercurrent of disappointment, that I am not behaving in quite the way that is desired.

The weather has been unusually warm and sunny. My hens are laying well. Thanks to Husband’s efforts our garden is being brought under control. My children are pursuing the interests of their choosing. My little family is fine.

Do all mothers feel pressurised, responsible for the peace and happiness of the entire household? What is it with the guilt that I feel when I am yet again discovered to have spent another couple of hours on my computer?

It sometimes seems that those who matter the most to me see my role purely in terms of what I do for them.

In a little over three weeks my children will return to school. I want to make the most of our freedom, to spend time together, to please them and Husband. Yet still, yet still I have so much that I want to do, things that matter to me and which make me feel that I am more than a shadow.

I have been blessed with a wonderful life, but no life can be entirely perfect all of the time. It is a question of balance. Perhaps that is what I am struggling to find.

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Interlude: freedom for whom?

There have been changes in my little household, subtle shifts that affect us all. I suspect that the rest of my family do not recognise the impact that these have on me. Where they see a chance for freedom and expect to be accommodated as they enjoy this interlude in their lives, I find that my quiet days are now constantly interrupted. I have lost my privacy and ability to structure my days.

It was a relief for all when exam season finally came to an end last week. Although my boys still have their music practicals in mid July, the importance of these is not so great that they need cause undue stress. I am enjoying listening to them practice, live music in the house is always welcome.

Daughter was away for five days, on a science field trip with school, returning last night to clean up and sleep before leaving early this morning for a university open day. She has two more of these planned, a chance for her to glimpse her future. She has a busy month ahead with work experience at a hospital followed by a holiday with her writer friends. She sways between wanting me to leave her in peace and needing me to sort so much out for her.

Elder son is now at home much of the time, sleeping through the mornings and then staying up into the wee small hours. I try not to interfere. At sixteen he needs to find his own space and I am grateful that he is home rather than out who knows where. He does not understand my life and often gives me a hard time over my choices. I can only hope that this is a phase he will grow out of, that empathy will return.

Younger son still has school, the only one of us who has not seen a shift in the everyday. I try to engage with him, but he wishes to spend his time on line with his friends. I am assured by other parents that his behaviour is normal. Perhaps one of the greatest challenges of parenting teens is going with the flow, allowing these emerging young adults to be.

Yesterday husband finished his contract with work, he is looking for another but we cannot know how long that will take. Thus he too will now be home, wanting to make use of his time. He has tasks lined up that need doing around the house and garden, but I am wary of what he will expect from me. I feel a need to guard my space, to ensure that I do not allow my hard won if still fragile status as a writer to be swept away.

I have found myself in a place that I am enjoying immensely: reading books; writing reviews; creating stories. The interactions with authors and publishers on line is fascinating, a world I aspire to get to know better. The books I am given to read feed me with thought provoking new experiences, offer me challenges as I tease out the reviews from the swirling emotions evoked by the writing. I like it here, I like to immerse myself in these worlds.

Yet how can I resent when a loved one asks for a meal, a cup of tea, a chance to chat? When my company is sought I have no wish to decline. They will each move on in time as work is found, school resumes. I wish to appreciate the time they spend with me without losing the inroads I have made into carving out a space for myself where I feel fulfilled, accepted, even valued from time to time.

Of course my family will always come first, but I fear losing the sense of self that I have finally gained. I find it hard that some cannot see value in what I do because it is unpaid, I am still reliant on my husband to support me. I recognise that privilege and am grateful for it, hoping that I can be a better family member by being happier in this life that I am leading.

Finding balance is always a challenge, giving time and attention to those who matter whilst not giving away what I am, what I wish to become. I value this space with my books and my writing. I wonder can I find a way to share it.

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Twenty-two years

Twenty-two years ago today I got married. At the time I was working in the IT department of a bank, having left the company where I met my husband-to-be just a couple of months before. I had worked hard and was eager to further my career. Colleagues who knew us both had expressed surprise when we announced that we were to marry; I had no such doubts.

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One piece of advice that I remember being given was ‘Don’t marry because you believe you can live happily ever after with this man, only marry if you don’t believe you can ever live happily without him.’ Over the last twenty-two years there have been times when I have not felt as content as I would like, but there has never been a time when I have felt that my life would improve if he were not by my side.

I do sometimes think that he may feel a bit short changed with how things have turned out for us. He married a determined career girl and we spent five years working hard, socialising with colleagues, doing up our home and taking many weekends away to walk the hills and dales of our beautiful land. He could not have foreseen how I would change when the midwife placed our baby daughter in my arms.

I had fully intended to return to work. By the time we felt ready to have a child I was back at the company where we had met, and had pre-booked a full time place at a local nursery close by for when my maternity leave ended. I envisaged us sharing the drop offs and pick ups whilst still being able to meet the demands of our jobs. How naive I was about parenting.

From the moment I first held our daughter I trusted nobody else but my husband with her care. I left her for the first time when I went into hospital to give birth to her brother sixteen months later, returning the same day that I could continue to care for them both. Two years later I gave birth to their little brother at home. With three pre school children to look after it was clear that I would not be returning to full time work any time soon.

The children consumed my life. Just as I had poured my all into progressing my career, now I determined to be the best mother it was possible for me to be. My husband provided support and balance in parenting style; he has always been fun parent to my more serious approach. We have worked as a team and raised three amazing kids of whom I am very proud.

There were suggestions over the years that I could return to outside work. For a time I was able to log some hours for a client at home; I even did a few weeks at their site. These tentative steps ceased when I took the decision to home school my youngest son prior to him starting secondary school. Our local village school had failed all three of my children, but he had suffered the most. That year and a half as his teacher was exhausting, challenging but incredibly rewarding.

Life is a series of chapters, the experience of which changes us as people. I have been happier married than I was single, yet I am glad that I had those few years on my own that I may compare and recognise the improvement. I would not have missed parenthood for the world, despite the fact that the exhaustion of the early years has left me scarred. It was right for us though not to rush into having children. Those first few years of marriage are happy memories.

Parenting teenagers is another chapter as our children assert their independence and we are able to spend more time together as a couple again. Having spent so many years capitulating to the demands of my family I now find myself emerging from the shell of motherhood with demands of my own. At times it feels cathartic, at others quite scary as I wonder at the person I have become.

Still though, how can I be anything but grateful to have a husband by my side who, as he left for work this morning whilst I slept on, left me this card with a cup of tea by my bedside.

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I know that I am blessed in many ways, and I never stop thanking God for granting me so much more than I deserve.