Wednesday, 29 July 2015

A big small world

Cherry and I spend a lot of time talking at the moment. She loves it when I share anecdotes, thoughts and feelings from 'when I was a little girl' and it has surprised me how many of them I had all but forgotten, until now.

I have begun to notice that it is in the raising of my children that I can rediscover, and continue to discover, what I love to do.

I can grow.

Before children there was work and socialising, but it's been a long time since I had any real 'hobbies' outside of riding my bike.

When I tell Cherry what I did as a little girl it hits home just how much I used to enjoy, that I gradually let slide, for one reason or another.

How small my world became, when I thought it so large.

Now the reverse is true. My world could seem so very small, but it's bigger than it's ever been.

As I tend the garden at home, grow plants, flowers, herbs, fruit and vegetables and think about how great it all is for my children, it suddenly occurred to me how great it all is for me too.

I love gardening, I always did. I love going for long walks, the kind of walks I go for with Cherry and Violet now where we just dawdle and take our time and look at things and play with things and get absorbed in things and ask questions and think and learn.

Caring for our guinea pigs has rekindled my love of all creatures great and small, as has going out with Cherry and Violet and stopping to pet every dog and talk to his or her owner to find out all about them and spotting woodpeckers, squirrels, foxes and little robin redbreasts in the woods.

At gymnastics classes we all take turns - myself included - to vault over equipment, balance on beams, swing from the bars and tumble on crash mats.

When they paint, I paint too. I loved art as a kid and loved to draw and paint even though I knew I was 'no good' at it. Now our walls are covered in pictures painted by the children - and even some by me.

I've been thinking a lot about my identity lately. Enmeshed as it has become with my children. A small part of me feels a little bit of a letdown for becoming 'that mum' who has picked up that she is starting to live vicariously through her children.

It hit home when I looked at my Instagram feed and realised that I was sharing picture after picture of Cherry and Violet doing things that I love to do and want to do.

The much bigger part of me is glad I have noticed, but tolerant. With two such young children there was never going to be a huge amount of time and space left over for me.

But I have remembered just how much I loved - still love - to ride horses and chuck myself around on crash mats and it has occurred to me that there is no real reason why I can't do all of this too.

This time last year I was feeling reflective as I prepared for Violet to turn one. My overwhelming feeling was that I was just not ready.

I wasn't ready emotionally to leave the bittersweetness of the newborn days behind.

Now I can see what lies ahead. I can see it in glorious technicolour, moment after ordinary moment. I can see that it's not just my children who are blossoming, learning, growing.

I am too.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The power of the bike

When I pledged to ride 100 miles last August for Tommy's, the baby charity, it's safe to say I really didn't appreciate what I was signing up for.

Once I realised the enormity of the commitment I'd taken on, a 100-mile bike ride less than a year after giving birth to my second child in 20 months, I deferred my place until this year.

I honestly think had it not been for the help and support of some truly amazing women I would not be ready to line up in a few weeks time for RideLondon 100. I would have had to just drop out.

Last year I easily completed a 10k run and a 40 mile sportive with no real training. Initially I though it would be no trouble, with a couple of longer training rides, to push that distance up by another 60.

Fresh-faced after 40 miles

But what I found when I started doing longer rides was it's not just a case of keeping your legs going.

Pain sets in where I didn't expect it to - pain in my back from being hunched over the bars for such a long time, pain on my sit-bones from the abysmal saddle that finances don't allow me to replace, pain in my feet from them numbing in the cleats I have finally managed to embrace (small wild party for me!), pain in my shoulders where I hunch them when I get tired.

Negativity set into my mind, the reasons why I couldn't or shouldn't do this, the foolishness of what I was attempting when I had two children at home awaiting my attention, chiding myself for the guilt I felt for being away from them, then chiding myself for chiding myself!

Then a child's nursery rhyme (Waltzing Matilda, yesterday) would pop into my head and that would be my accompaniment for the next 30 or so miles.

It's not exactly been a cheap process either. There's been all manner of unexpected little and not-so-little costs to upgrading my riding from the occasional longer distance effort, to a serious training plan. New tyres, bits of kit, replacements for bits that wear down and fall off - the training is hard on my bike, and if I'm honest it's hard on me.

After my first group training session back in February

It's hard hauling myself out of bed at 5.50am for an hour of hill reps before Noel goes to work. It's hard devoting pretty much entire days to longer training rides when we have so much to cram into our precious weekends - family time, time to ourselves, errands, housework, the general business of everyday life as a family. It's hard on Noel the day of a long ride because I'm anxious and afraid and even though I work super-hard not to take it out on him, I'm certainly less pleasant to be around.

For all of these reasons I know had it not been for the training programme I have been taking part in, run by Revolution Cycling, I would not have been able to keep up with my training.

Going out with a group of women who are in it with me - that's the most powerful motivator. Having people to ride with when I don't feel like it, when it hurts, when I am so tired from yet another bad night with Violet that I could lie down and sleep at ANY point.

After our second group training ride, for which I dressed 'optimistically' and froze the entire way round!

Yesterday I listened to myself talking to some of my training group and everything that came out of my mouth was negative. I was finding training stressful. For various reasons I didn't complete the full distances of the last two rides and I felt ashamed about that. The 64-mile sportive a few of us took part in that was far harder than I'd anticipated, despite having done the distance before, and took forever for me to drag myself around. And so on.

And while I was moaning away, there we all were. Riding together. One member of our party with a badly cut knee from her second fall in her cleats. One who had eschewed the sportive last month in favour of an ascent of Mont Ventoux. One who was riding 100 miles that very day in the memory of her late husband, fired up by her challenge, visibly stronger and more powerful than I'd ever seen her ride before. One who could barely speak at the top of Box Hill after 55 miles on a blazing hot day, still riding.

All of us with our own stories and our own reasons for riding.

All of us determined and focused, smiling and high five-ing at the top of hills, checking in with each other regularly, sharing something and being something that was greater than the sum of its parts.

All of us truly inspiring. Including me. Me, who has learned so much about myself, about my body and my mind, about my bike, about cycling, about motivation, and honestly, about life in general through this process.

Me, who appears to have lost a stone in weight since February. Me, in cleats, after terrifying myself in them last year, finally having got over that hurdle, felt the fear and done it anyway.

Me, a full-time mother to two fully dependent children, one of whom is still breastfeeding voraciously and waking regularly at night, who still drags herself out of bed at 5.50am for those hill reps.

There I was too, smiling. And there I will be on August 2 and I will ride those 100 miles. Smiling.

That's the power of the bike.

Noel and I are riding RideLondon100 together to raise money for Tommy's, the baby charity. Please sponsor us here.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

I have a second child

An awareness has been creeping up on me lately. I feel it every time I look at my journal and re-read entries and see Cherry's name on practically every page.

I sense it every time I am thinking about what to do this week, this afternoon, this evening, what to cook for tea or what stories to read at bedtime. I feel it every time I think about the future, our plans, our hopes and dreams.

Time and again when decisions are made based upon what's best for 'us', somebody isn't really being taken into account.


Second children get many benefits out of their birth order, not least calmer, confident and more relaxed parents in most cases and the built-in companionship and entertainment of an older sibling.

But being a second child does come at a price. You are never, ever, ever the first. And often, this means you are never really the focus as your older sibling is always a step (or twenty) ahead, blazing the trail.

For the first year of Violet's life she was 'the baby' and clearly as long as her needs were met, her wants were also fulfilled. Her needs were relatively simple, as most babies are, and much of the time spent with Violet was physical time, cuddling and feeding and wiping and changing.

Now she is a toddler her physical needs are diminishing (although she still feeds like a newborn) and her emotional and social needs are coming to the forefront.

The age gap between our children is so close that there are few, if any, things Cherry can do that Violet can't. For that reason they pretty much always do the same things, and therefore the spectrum of 'things' Violet has been exposed to has naturally been limited by Cherry's tastes and preferences.

She also has a naturally sunny, open and contented personality. Simply put, Violet seems to like EVERYTHING. Cherry loves swimming but Violet is if anything even more of a water baby than her older sister. When Cherry, inspired by her older cousin, decided she wanted to start going to gymnastics, I found a class both could participate in. Although Cherry does love it, it's Violet who bounces in her seat shouting 'Yay! Dismatics!' when we are on our way to class.

In the last few weeks I have realised I must make a conscious effort to get to know my second child a bit better. I could tell you chapter and verse about her older sister - naturally I have had 20 months longer to get to know Cherry and at three and a half she is capable of grasping concepts and expressing herself in a way Violet is not. But I am falling a little into the trap of making assumptions about Violet as opposed to stepping back, observing and really getting to know her.

I don't think I am alone in finding that often I think or talk about my second child in relation to my first. Cherry is X, Violet is Y. Violet is this, but Cherry was that.

But such talk can become dangerous and drive children to occupy the only space they can find - the space that hasn't already been taken up by their older sibling or siblings.

Cherry is this and therefore Violet is that.

Siblings do, of course, heavily influence how we define ourselves and are defined as people. I myself am a second child, to a popular, intelligent, charming and well-liked brother just 15 months my senior and had I not been, I would not be the person I am now.

But I have always been emphatic in my need to be seen and heard separately to, not in relation to, my sibling.

It is imperative I offer my own second child the same courtesy - the same right.

I respect my older daughter's complex personality and I do recognise that her need for attention and affirmation is often greater than her younger sibling's. But our lives cannot simply be The Cherry Show. There is enough space to go around, Violet does not need to grow up in her sister's shadow.

What brought it home to me was the realisation that I have since last September had three mornings a week at home with my younger daughter, while Cherry is at pre-school, yet this week was the first time I have taken Violet to the playground across the road.

Sometimes we see friends, she will usually nap, then she is so happy to potter about that I can easily - as I have - spend these mornings catching up with housework, cooking, doing the odd bit of work and generally not paying her a great deal of attention.

Then before I know it our time is up and it's time to go and get Cherry. I have been with Violet the entire time yet she's had no one-on-one attention other than the time she spends breastfeeding.

As school for Cherry and preschool for Violet looms on the very distant horizon, it suddenly occurred to me I have only one more year at home full-time with my baby.

My baby, who will be two in August. My baby, who really should have been called 'Joy' as she is the living embodiment of it. My baby, who charms and wins over everybody she meets. My baby, whose speech, comprehension and physical mastery absolutely astounds me time and again. My baby, the reason I have not once at any point over the last 22 months NOT thought 'I could lie down and sleep RIGHT NOW'.

My baby. My second child. My last child. How glad I am to have this time to get to know her.