Monday, 27 December 2010

Another Year Over...

‘A new one just begun’* as the song goes. 

There is nothing quite like New Year to make us aware of the passing of time and just how precious it is.

This is particularly so for the older generation and it is a sad fact that my own family has had to say goodbye to many  loved ones in recent years. New Year is a time for remembering and I know that my mother feels the loss of my father and her sister, brothers and friends acutely. I am at an age when I see my cousins more often at funerals than any other family celebration. An even more cruel blow last year was losing one of my cousins to cancer. 

It has to be said that I look at my own mother and realise how important it is to value her and to create happy family memories for myself and for my children. She can grumpy, difficult, bad tempered and, at times, more impossible to deal with than my teenagers (and that is saying something!) but she is my mum and we (I) can’t bear to think of life without her.

We had a scare at the beginning of the year when my mum was in hospital for several months. It reminded me of when my father suddenly became ill and went into hospital four years ago.  It very soon became obvious that he wasn’t going to come home again. But my mother has always been a fighter and she did slowly get better. She has now returned to her own home, which I never thought would have been possible, although that still causes concern on a daily basis. That same stubbornness and determination that allowed her, at the age of 85, to conquer illness also keeps her clinging on to a house that is far too big and difficult for her to manage (but that is another story!).

Time is precious and as get older we come to realise that and I often wish that I had made the effort to see more of my grandparents when I was younger. I now try to make sure that my own children see their grandmothers as often as possible but they are growing up and have other priorities. Even on occasions when you can drag them round to see granny, they are plugged into iPods or mobile phones. And such is the way of things. It is only as we get older ourselves that we realise how quickly time slips away and opportunities are lost.

And sometimes if we listen we discover that the older generation have wonderful stories to tell. It was only this year at the funeral of a relative that we discovered that she had left home at 14 to go into service as a maid in a country home. When I think of all those family occasions spent in her company and I never knew about her early life – just think of Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey – what fascinating tales she must have had to tell.

So this year when the clock chimes 12 to herald the arrival of 2011, I will raise my glass to all those who have gone before and vow to make the most of every minute spent with those who remain.

Happy New Year!

*Lyrics by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Christmas is coming and so are the relatives!

"What are you doing for Christmas?"

The question was innocent enough but coming from my mother meant ‘Can I spend it with you’?

"Would you like to come to us?"
"Ohh, that would be lovely, thank you so much dear."

She didn’t really need to ask. For as far back as I can remember I have had my mum and mother-in-law (MIL) to stay over the festive season.

This was our choice. With family spread over the country, and much of my husband’s in the far north, we have spent many Christmas holidays traversing the country. One year we clocked up over 1,000 miles in three days. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had meant that everyone was happy and felt that they had been treated fairly but our families all complained that we hadn’t stayed for long enough, come on the right day etc.

When our eldest was born, having spent 12 gruelling hours in the car with a snuffly baby, in freezing conditions, trying to appease the grandparents, we decided that enough was enough.

"Next year we are staying put," we announced. "You can do what you want, we won’t be offended, come to us if you like."

And so they did, and have done every year for the past 15 years.

It would be lovely to have a Christmas day to ourselves. Just us and the kids, opening presents, eating what we want, when we want to. Instead, it will be the usual pantomime of my mother insisting on spending the day in the kitchen ‘helping’ whilst MIL takes up residence on the couch expecting everyone to wait on her.

And that is without the brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces that will all come and go at intervals throughout the festive season.

This year, there is the added complication of my daughter’s long term boyfriend (LTB). Of course they want to spend time together but at whose house and with which family?

I know it would be churlish to deny grandparents seeing the children at Christmas (if only they would behave a bit better (the grandparents, not the kids!). And I have no doubt that in years to come, we will cherish the times we all spent together as one big extended family.

But come 1 January, my husband and I find ourselves exhausted as we face the return to work, wondering where our ‘holiday’ went.

And in years to come, I wonder if my own children will ask me to stay with them for Christmas and what my reply might be?

"Sorry, darling, hope you don’t mind but we’re off to the Caribbean?

I’d like to think so, but I doubt it.

I am much more likely to say: "I thought you’d never ask."

Christmas is, after all, a time for families.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Why I banned my daughter from Facebook and gave her a pen and paper

A study by psychologist Professor Paul Kirschner at an American University*, has revealed that students who log on to Facebook while studying get worse results than those who don’t. This comes as no surprise to me. For the past year, my husband and I have been waging a daily battle with our daughter Lillie over this very subject.

With GCSEs on the horizon, we felt the time had come for her to get down to some studying well away from the distractions of Facebook. We have a house full of books, what more could she need?

What more indeed? It transpired that her school had thoughtfully provided a number of online study aids that, by definition, required the use of a computer. The question ‘how do those children get on who haven’t got a computer at home?’ was met with a scornful sigh.

I realise that we are living in a world dominated by the Internet and schools are duty bound to keep up with technology but expecting a class of hormonally challenged, socially hungry youngsters to concentrate on their homework when they could be catching up with who is ‘poking’ who at the touch of a button, is like asking a bee to ignore a pot of honey.

The Internet is a massive resource and schools ignore it at their peril, but there are limits. Earlier this year, when Lillie began working towards exams, I was dismayed by how many hours she was spending ‘revising’ in front of the computer.

“Surely you must have some written notes?” I asked, remembering the volumes of hand written pages from my own student years.

“It’s all here mum!” she said. Sure enough there on screen was everything you needed to know to achieve an A* in GCSE history but was all this information being absorbed? I had good reason to doubt it. Every time I left the room, a quick click on the mouse replaced Hitler’s image with that of one of Lillie’s Facebook friends. When I finally managed to drag her away from the screen to test her, the horrible truth was revealed. Lillie, who is generally not short of things to say, was unable to fashion any kind of intelligent answer to the questions I asked her. The time had come to intervene.

I bought the course books, gave her a pen and paper and told her to start writing, explaining that the act of writing things down helps to fix them in your brain. Lillie quickly produced a set of workable notes from which to revise and was surprised at how much of she could remember afterwards.

Of course, the Internet does have its place in education. It can be a valuable research tool and online learning has given thousands who might not otherwise have had the opportunity, a way to learn new skills. However, when it comes to exams and revising I believe there is still no substitute for a notebook and pen – and the absence of external distractions.

Now hold on, while I just update my status …!

*Full findings of the 2010 published in Computers in Human Behaviour.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Me time, what ‘me’ time?

“The trouble with women today,” said my doctor, looking at me pointedly over the top of her glasses, “is that they think they can do everything.” 

I looked away guiltily.

“But something has to go and it is always the time they should be spending looking after themselves. At your time of life…”

There it was again, that little phrase, five little words that mean ‘now you are past your best’. I had been hearing it a lot lately, but getting back to what doc was saying...

“I could prescribe something to help you to cope but…”

Yes, I know, I have read all the self help manuals; I know that I should give up wine, eat less cake and exercise more ….

“I think what you really need is a little ‘me’ time.”

It was as easy as that then. Just an hour to myself occasionally and my stress levels would return to normal or at least to ‘manageable’, rather than being permanently pitched at ‘screaming harpie’ level.

So that was why, when faced with an unaccustomed ‘free’ morning, I closed the door on the mess in the living room, ignored the huge pile of ironing and ran myself a hot bubble bath.

No sooner had I sunk into the scented depths with book, mug of tea and chocolate cake at the ready (yes, I KNOW, I should eat less cake!), when the phone rang.

Ignore it, I thought. If it’s urgent they’ll call back. Then my mobile started.  Leave it, I told myself, but that nagging voice in head had started up. What if was an emergency; if one of the kids was in trouble or my mum had fallen again? I couldn’t relax until I knew that everyone was OK.

I dripped into the bedroom to retrieve my phone. I had two messages by then, both from Lillie. The first read ‘No money left - any chance you could pick me up?’ The second, presumably because I hadn’t responded quickly enough to the first, just said ‘???’.

I text her back saying I was busy but would come later. I got back in the bath and picked up my book. I had barely read two sentences when I received another text. This time I was ready, having brought my mobile into the bathroom. It was from Beth: ‘Forgotten my goggles, could you bring them?’ ‘In the bath’, I replied.

I took a couple of sips of tepid tea. There was a knock at the front door. Ignore it! This is your time, I reminded myself. Someone shouted through the letterbox: “Can you let me in,” hubbie’s voice, “I’ve forgotten my key, “Oh, and could you run a bath for Josh, footie finished early.”

What was I to do? The bath water was cold by now anyway. At least I still had the cake to look forward to. 

I threw on a towelling robe, opened the door for father and son and ran another bath for Josh.

Having dispatched hubbie to drop off goggles and pick up Lillie (Bless him, he does have his uses), I went to retrieve my cake only to discover Josh wolfing down the last few crumbs.

“That was great mum, thanks,” he said.

I shouldn’t eat it anyway, I thought. Now what should I tackle first, the tidying or that ironing?