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How to enter a writing competition

 

 

Please note I haven’t titled this blog ‘How to win a writing competition’. Because, let’s get this out there at the start, the truth is (whisper it) I don’t know. Even though I won one of them, a few years ago, which turned out to be A Very Good Thing, I can’t tell you exactly how it was done.*

 

What I do know, and can share, is how to enter a writing competition – with style. How I believe you can give yourself and your work the best possible chance of shining. How I think framing your attitude helps. And, probably, a few heavy hints on how not to win.

Shall we get going?

 

For the last few years I’ve had the joy of being involved in reading for the Bath Novel Award, in the early rounds, up to shortlist stage. In the last two competitions, I’ve correctly identified the eventual winner from the very first 5000 words – now this is partly luck (I don’t read every entry, so I was fortunate they happened into my inbox) but maybe some judgment too. So I’ve been thinking about what it is that made those particular entries shine – and what other aspiring entrants could learn.

 

Stand out for the right reasons #1 – AKA follow the flipping rules.

I know this might seem boring, but seriously. It’s the same with entering a competition as submitting to an agent – if they ask for 5000 words, send 5000 words (or a little under, obviously – find a natural break). If they ask for 12 point Times New Roman, then…how much effort is it, really, to use the right formatting? If you don’t bother following the rules, it doesn’t make you look wacky or interesting, it makes you look like you don’t care, or you don’t think that you need to care, whereas the other hundreds (even thousands) of entrants do.

Of course, sometimes we all make mistakes – and not all competitions will automatically disqualify you for these, but some will.

 

Stand out for the right reasons #2 – check, double check, and triple check spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Again I’m aware I’m coming off like the fun police here, and it’s true some readers will forgive you a few errors in the SPAG department if the story and the characters are strong, but…personally, I find if there are too many it’s really distracting. And when the standard is very high, even if you have a killer idea, your consistent typos and missing commas could send your entry into the ‘no thanks’ pile. Ideally get someone else to check your work over for you – it’s easy to become blind to our own mistakes.

 

Remember the power of the hook – a compelling opening scene is all-important. Get straight into the action and pose a question – quickly. To do this you must know what your characters want. Kurt Vonnegut said every character must want something, even if it is just a glass of water. You need to establish what they want early – and ideally put something in their way. Conflict is the lifeblood of fiction. But being a bit thirsty isn’t much of a hook, is it? Unless, maybe, your character is lost in a desert, miles from anywhere, in a dystopian world where water has become more valuable than gold. Maybe they have water, or the means to create it, and someone is pursuing them to get to it. OK, it’s probably obvious I’m not a science-fiction writer, but you get the idea. The hook is the question(s) your reader will be asking themselves as they turn the pages: it’s how, what, why, or when? The hook is the thing that could only happen in your world, to your character. And if it doesn’t show up in the first 5000 words, you probably need to do some trimming of those opening pages.

It might seem a bit like you’re playing to the audience by being deliberately ‘hooky’, but there are two things to consider: one, if your manuscript is longlisted, the rest of it absolutely must deliver on the extract’s promise. Two, writing for a contest is no different to writing for a reader – there’s a lot of competition out there and readers can be fickle and impatient. If you don’t grab them from the opening pages, they’re not likely to pick up your book in the shop, or if they do get it home, they’re not going to keep reading it and then tell everybody they know ‘You have to read this book’. Which is what we want as authors, right? (Pretty sure this is not just me…)

 

Pay attention to voice – I’ve read lots of terrific entries to the Bath Novel Award. When I look back over the notes I made on my ‘yes’ votes, my most common comments had to do with voice. Voice is, in my opinion, the quality that makes good writing great. It’s what makes a book sing from the page. It’s also unfortunately the hardest quality to define (I could probably write a whole blog post on this topic alone…and still not have a definitive answer). It’s the quality that makes your writing yours. It manifests in confident, consistent writing; a narrator, be it first or third person, that I want to spend time with (note, I don’t have to like them – I just have to find them interesting); a world or a way of looking at the world that is somehow unique, even startling. Good voice can be funny, it can be reflective, it can be angry or wry. Voice is tone. It’s style, choice of language, rhythm. Told you it was hard to pin down, didn’t I? If I had to put it into a word though, I would say simply this: good voice sounds real.

 

A word on the ‘dreaded’ synopsis – I think ‘dreaded’ must be the epithet most commonly applied to ‘synopsis’. Yes, we all hate doing them. Yes, it’s one of the bizarre ironies of writing life that it’s harder to summarise your book in 500 words than it was to write the whole damn 80,000 words of it. So here’s my advice: don’t get overly hung up on it it, because it’s not that important. If your writing is absolutely stellar, it seems unlikely (though I can’t swear to it, obviously) you’ll be rejected on the basis of a weak synopsis. Personally I read the extract first and then go to the synopsis to see if you can carry the story, if your novel seems to be paced well and have good character arcs, and so on. Which brings me to the second piece of advice, which is: spoilers, please! The synopsis must tell us how things turn out. Don’t try to tantalise us…we need to see that you know where you’re going (and how you’ll get there).

To be honest, I know an extract is really special when I don’t want to read the synopsis because I don’t want to know how it turns out.

 

Attitude is all – you might argue that the odds of winning a competition that receives hundreds or even thousands of entries are not great, so why bother entering? Well, my answer is twofold: you still might win (someone usually does), and if you don’t, just being a part of the process could be huge. You’ll likely make links with a supportive community even if only via Twitter; you could get useful feedback from the judges; and putting your work ‘out there’ can be a powerful step. Even if you have a great book, there’s luck and personal taste involved, too, but you are best to make friends with those now if you hope to be published in the future.

Frame your attitude, manage your expectations, and dive in.

 

One last thought. There are loads of qualities that make a competition entry stand out. But the thing the recent Bath winners have in common is that they stayed with me when I wasn’t reading. Why not consider getting a trusted, honest friend or colleague to read your entry…then ask them about it a week later? If they’re still thinking about it…if they can still tell you what they liked about it…you might be onto a very good thing.

Happy writing, happy submitting, and good luck!

 

 

*I did once appear on a panel called ‘How to win a novel award’. But it was a group effort; I wasn’t claiming to have all the answers. The other panel members in particular have some interesting and useful things to say, though – check them out here:

HOW TO WIN A NOVEL AWARD

 

The Bath Novel Award 2018 is now open for entries, closing date 30th April. Other writing competitions are, of course, available. You can find useful lists in the back of good writing magazines, and all over the interweb, like here:

https://www.creativewritingink.co.uk/writing-competitions/

 

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Good and Not Good things about living alone*

(*caveat: I know I’m not always alone, because my son is here half the time and he’s pretty close to perfection, human being-wise, but he’s 7 and therefore I can’t watch Broadchurch with him)

 

Good:

 

  • Falling asleep in front of the TV without anyone poking you and saying every 30 seconds ‘Wake up, you’re missing it’ and ‘Why don’t you go to bed?’
  • Leaving the washing up until morning sometimes because NO-ONE WILL KNOW
  • Cooking your famous ‘pasta with pesto and anchovies’ AGAIN, just because you fancy it, without anyone looking at you strangely
  • Watching Friends re-runs, Gogglebox, anything at all on TV in fact, without shame or argument
  • No men’s socks ever found on dining room table or other inappropriate places
  • Spending entire day writing (translation: 5+ hours of alternate staring out of window and walking aimlessly around house, plus 45 minutes of frantic scribbling / typing in manner of one possessed) without having to entertain anyone else or indeed explain your bizarre behaviour
  • All choices regarding décor, pets, hoarding or disposal of possessions, being yours and yours alone in manner of mini-dictatorship
  • Having the entire, king size bed to yourself

 

Not good:

 

  • Cooking AND washing up, every night. In fact every household task being your responsibility alone, especially…
  • Putting the bins out. Yes, it only takes approx. 45 seconds once a week, but I resent it so much I would consider living with Hannibal Lecter if he promised to do this one job for me
  • Having no-one to watch Broadchurch with and so having to dramatically gasp and air your theories to an empty room
  • Getting ill and still having to deal with life admin, for example on one memorable occasion, simultaneous chest infection (me) and nits (boy). Combed them out in the bath, exhausted, then cried and went to bed. Would have been nice to have someone to bring me a Lemsip, at least
  • Sometimes really shit things happen, like someone dies, and although you have lovely friends who you know would drop everything to receive a ranty, tearful phone call or come over and hug you, you feel very, very alone
  • Having the entire, king size bed to yourself

 

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Happy Mothers’ Day?

I was about halfway through writing Hush Little Baby when I realised I was writing a book about mothers. It’s about lots of other things – family dynamics, secrets, societal pressure on today’s teens – but in its pages, mothers – flawed mothers – abound. Not just the main character, Sally, fighting to win back her baby from social services, but also her own mother, hypercritical and distant; her mother-in-law, judgmental and controlling; and the ‘first wife’ Zoe, too inconsistent and self-absorbed to properly parent her troubled daughter.

I hadn’t realised how much I had to say on the subject, but I had long been aware of the strange dichotomy in society’s attitude towards mothers, even before I became one myself. Mums are simultaneously fetishized and demonized. The gender gap, while it might be narrowing in some places, is alive and well in parenting. A ‘bad’ mother is extra vilified precisely because she’s a woman, while men get brownie points for even basic parenting. How many times have you heard ‘He’s so good with the kids,’ offered out as a kind of awestruck gong when a dad has taken his offspring to the park, or changed a nappy, or helped with the homework? My response has always been ‘Well he should be, right? They’re his kids.’ And yet nobody ever says it about a mum, because, well, she just ought to be good at it; and if she isn’t, she’s a freak. Similarly, I have lost count of the number of (otherwise seemingly well-adjusted) men I have heard refer to looking after their own children as ‘babysitting’. My stock reply is ‘The word you’re looking for is parenting,’ and they laugh, but I don’t. Because I’ve never heard a mother say, ‘I can’t come out tonight, I’m babysitting.’

Oh, I know, it stems from the days when men went out to work and women ran the household, and children were to be washed and presented to their daddies at the end of the day, along with his slippers, a large scotch and a perfectly coiffed wife. But come on, we’ve moved on, and the parent narrative needs to, too.

But if the misogynist message is insidious, it’s nothing to the pressure we women put on each other. It starts even before your baby is born; you join the NCT and competitive mothering begins (so subtly that you hardly notice it – you’re mainly there to make friends, after all, because you’re pretty sure your workmates won’t want to know you when you can’t drink Sambuca and dance on tables any more and all you can talk about is sleep and poo). You’re sold the ideas of a perfect birth – one that you can actually write a plan for, ho ho ho – and blissful breastfeeding, and these are served up to you by other women, mainly (alongside my other personal favourites ‘You’ll love your baby as soon as you see him’ and ‘Oh, you’ll just know what to do when it’s your own’). And when these things don’t happen in actual real life, it begins: you start to get tipsy on the heady cocktail of guilt, anxiety and, if not exactly failure, then not-quite-good-enough-itis. Fast forward a few years, and it’s bake sales and bloody Easter bonnets, and offspring who demand to know ‘why there isn’t a Child’s Day’, to which you smile even though you are screaming inside: ‘BECAUSE EVERY DAY IS CHILD’S DAY, YOU UNGRATEFUL LITTLE SH*T!’

Oh dear – just me? At any rate, this leads me to acknowledge what I see as a backlash against the ‘perfect mom’ fetish: the comedy parenting blogs / books. Pages like ‘The Unmumsy Mum’ and ‘Hurrah for Gin’ lampoon the ‘perfect’ mother with her ruddy-faced, outdoorsy children and expertly constructed craft projects, and gleefully admit the hitherto unspoken facts, that sometimes our kids piss us off, and more often than not our partners are thoughtless and, well, a bit useless, and sometimes we are just TOO DAMN TIRED.

The trouble is (and I hesitate to say this, because I really, really love Hurrah for Gin), even these books / blogs are a teeny bit of a smug club and however horrendous the tale (one involving a small child being sick in their parent’s mouth made me feel considerably better about my own day – large helping of schadenfreude, anyone?), in the background there is usually, actually, a hapless but ultimately supportive partner. There are usually understanding friends to laugh / cry into the prosecco with at the end of the week.

Now, this is all as it should be, of course, because it’s comedy, but we should keep in mind that there are some women for whom it’s not funny; women who are properly sinking, not just sinking into the sofa on a Sunday night with a large glass in hand and Call the Midwife on the telly.

Mother’s Day is probably not that welcome today for a whole load of people: those who’ve lost beloved mums, or maybe had shitty relationships with them that they’d rather forget; those who can’t have children, and those who maybe could but choose not to and would rather not see the relentless portrayal of the mum as a kind of goddess, which won’t be helped today by social media streams clogged with pictures of breakfasts in bed and teary blessing-countings for idyllic relationships with mums and children that, well, aren’t really. Maybe for those of us who are mums, it’s a bit annoying if we congratulate ourselves just for the fact that, by accident of biology, our ovaries worked ok while someone else’s didn’t. And for those of us who are sons and daughters (ok that’s all of us), at the risk of sounding like one of those rubbish husbands who uses it as an excuse for forgetting Valentine’s Day or an anniversary, maybe we should appreciate our mums every day, not just once a year. And that doesn’t mean idolize them, it means value them – for all their faults and flaws as well as the qualities that make them brilliant. It’s time to get real, and reject the dichotomy: mothers aren’t angels or demons, they’re human beings. They make mistakes, and they kick ass. Sometimes they even do both on the same day. Just like everyone else.

Happy Mothers’ Day to all of us.

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Childhood dreams and Moomins: how writing things down changed my life (and it’s not how you think)

At the age of 9, I won an international writing competition and as a result, had a story published. Nearly 30 years later, the same thing happened again, albeit on a larger scale (the first was a short story, called A Journey Through Time, published in an anthology; the second was my novel Precocious, published in 2015 by Ebury).

 

That’s a really long gap, but something happened in between, you see: I grew up.

 

Now that I’m a mum, I’m struck every day by the extraordinary creativity and self-belief of children. My son, who’s 6, strongly believes he can grow up to do and be whatever he likes (even if his most fervent wish, currently, is to join the Ninja Turtles). When I was not much older than him, I started to write stories and my dream was to become an author.

 

And then life got in the way. I did an English degree, and a Creative Writing masters, but I also got a job, a house and bills to pay. Life brought many exciting and wonderful experiences, but my dream receded.

 

In June 2012, I woke up on my 36th birthday to this epiphany: ‘I don’t want to be 40 and still have the same kind of life’.

 

I was divorced with a small child and disillusioned with the career that had once brought me satisfaction (not to mention a very good salary). The idea of making drastic changes was terrifying, but the four years until I turned 40 seemed like a reasonable timeframe within which to start doing things differently.

 

At just the right time, a lovely friend (and mentor) came to see me and helped me to formulate my vague wishes and dreams into what became known as The Four-Year Plan. We bought a notebook in which to document the plan, and I chose deliberately: a hardback book with a Moomin on the front.

 

The 9-year-old me, you see, loved books and used to read Finn Family Moomintroll aloud to her mum (along with the Secret Seven, but I couldn’t find an Enid Blyton notebook, sadly). I wanted to recapture that 9-year-old’s dreams, and the certainty and clarity that little girl had about what she was going to be when she grew up.

 

Within the pages of the Moomin book, I started to write down, in a vague way at first, all the things I might like to do. Write (this was always top of my list, although I still didn’t believe at this point that anyone would ever pay me to do it). Help people. Teach, maybe. Within a few months I’d written down what I thought the 40-year-old me might have become. It reads: Writer. Counsellor. Doula.

 

So crucially, as I turned 40 in June this year, where am I now?

 

I’m a published author with one book in the world, another ready to be published next year, and a third germinating in my little brain. I’m in the final year of a psychotherapeutic counselling course. I’m not a doula, but I have qualified as a hypnotherapist and as part of this I offer hypnobirthing, so I’m helping pregnant women in that way. From January next year I will be leading the So:write women’s writing group in Southampton.

 

I don’t think any of this would have ‘come true’ without me writing it down. Now, I’m not particularly spiritual, I don’t believe in ‘sending wishes out into the universe’ and that kind of thing (I haven’t even read The Secret). But something happens when you write down your dreams, goals, call them what you like. They become real, somehow. You’re making a commitment to them. You’ve got a reminder, in black and white (especially if you revisit them often, which I recommend). And if you’re good at detail, it helps to break down the plan into yearly, monthly, weekly chunks. Make the dream part of your to-do list. Do one thing, however small, every day, to get you closer to where you want to be.

 

In the wake of something wonderful, people often say ‘I never dreamed this would happen’. That’s rarely true. No-one ever won the lottery without buying a ticket.

 

So my advice is buy the ticket. Hold onto your dreams. And, with or without Moomin help, write them down.

 

 

 

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40

So last week I hit the big one. 4-0. Life begins, so they say (which leaves me wondering what exactly I’ve been doing for 39 years and 364 days).

And as much as I tried to tell myself a birthday is just a day, an arbitrary measurement really, just another revolution of this little green planet around a big fiery orb, it did feel like a milestone.

So why exactly is 40 such a big deal? In a happy coincidence, while I was planning this blog, this weekend’s Observer ran a piece by Miranda Sawyer on her own ‘mid-life crisis’. In it, she talks about ‘death maths’: ‘if you were born in the UK between the late 60s and late 70s, and you’re a man, then all the research says that your life expectancy is 80. If you’re a woman, it’s 83.’

That’s it, then, isn’t it? 40 is a roughly-midway point. And people are prone to ‘crisis’ at this point because it just doesn’t seem long enough, does it? I mean, I don’t even remember the first few years, which seems a bit of a jip, to be honest. Quite a bit of my teens and twenties is now a blur (damn you, Diamond White).

So I thought I’d review just the last decade, and see what I’ve been up to; where I was at 30, and where I am now. (As Ferris Bueller said, life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.) Turns out quite a bit has gone on.

In the last 10 years, I’ve: got married, got divorced, had a baby, moved 240 miles south, left my sales career, had a novel published, started studying, and lost a parent. Phew. No wonder I’m tired. The last decade has really been about change, not all of it anticipated, or wanted.

 

If I’m to focus on any one change, the pivotal event of my thirties was becoming a mother. And becoming a mother was – still is – about adjusting.

Adjusting to the massive and immediate wake-up call of those life-changing blue lines.

Adjusting to being a new mother amid the reality that it didn’t ‘come naturally’ as so many people said it would; that in fact, in those first few months especially, it was exhausting, frustrating and sometimes (whisper it) boring. That it was a role that would tap into my Fear Of Failure more deeply than any other activity imaginable (even skiing), and that this terror would never, ever let up.

Next, adjusting to being a single mum and well and truly learning what it means to put your child’s happiness and wellbeing ahead of your own.

And more recently, adjusting to being a mum who works a little bit less and in a more flexible, but less secure, way, and consequently earns a lot less and worries more about the future, the trade-off being more time with my son (that time being already a scarce commodity, see divorce, above; his dad and I have what I call ‘shared ownership’).

Becoming a mother has been the highlight of the last decade, for me, no doubt about that. But it’s not everything, and it’s important more people say that out loud. Being a mother has (hopefully) made me more sensitive to the choices and lack of choices that other women make and have. I respect those who maybe could have children but choose not to, I sympathise with those who would love to have children but cannot, but above all, I recognise that it’s none of my damn business to pass comment on it either way.

 

In some of the conventional (mostly materialistic) ways we measure success in our society, I suppose I’ve gone backwards in the last ten years. 30-year-old me had her own house and drove a swanky BMW; 40-year-old me is firmly in the rental market with no foreseeable way out and drives a Ford Focus. Ten years ago I was engaged and planning a wedding; today I’m on my own and can’t quite decide whether I really like it (when I make a list of reasons it would be nice to have a boyfriend, ‘someone to put the bin out on a Monday night’ is disturbingly high up) or am just too bruised by experience to let someone in.

But I’m also proud of some of the changes I’ve made, and the way I’ve handled those changes that were somewhat forced upon me. Forgive the clichés but I find that these days I genuinely care more about people, but less about what people think of me. I’m confident in my own views but (I hope) not so intransigent that I can’t listen to others. I accept my wrinkles and wobbly bits and am grateful for good health.

And while I honestly plan to do more ‘adulting’ from now on (early nights, drink more water, take my makeup off and hang up my clothes before bed), I happily saw out the first week of my 40s jumping up and down to the Stone Roses at the Ethiad back in Manchester. Right before this joyful 90-minute regression to my youth, The Courteeners, one of the support acts, reminded us ‘You’re not nineteen forever’.

My mental response? Exactly 50/50 between ‘That’s what you think! Just watch me drink vodka and scream my lungs out to ‘Waterfall’!’ and ‘Well, thank the flying spaghetti monster for that’.

Which I think is a perfectly appropriate reaction for a 40-year-old.

 

 

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When is a thing finished, anyway?

A week ago I finished my second novel.

 

There have been other, false, endings. The first draft. Hahaha. The fact I ever considered it anywhere near finished at that point makes me laugh.

The second draft, even, when ‘It’s finished’ really meant ‘I’m finished’. It meant ‘I can’t do this any more, it’s not you, it’s me’.

But this time is different. I’m sure there will still be additions, subtractions and tweaks suggested by wiser people than me (namely, my agent and editor), but just now, it does actually feel finished. It feels like a book. The End feels like the end. And with that comes all sorts of odd emotions.

I attached the file to an email, hit send and then I couldn’t sleep. I thought I’d feel relieved but relief was at the bottom of the pile, squashed into near-insignificance by a raft of other feelings.

 

There are things about this book that I am only now recognising. How much of me is in it, for starters. How emotional a process it has been (in a way, I think of Precocious as more of an intellectual exercise than this one, but that could be down to the distance of time). The demons I’ve exorcised.

But above all, it hits me that I’ve lived with this book for over a year (quite a few years, really, since the idea first started germinating). That’s the thing about writing: even when you’re not writing, you are. Even when the thing isn’t physically in your hands, it’s with you. And as with many relationships, it’s only now it’s gone that I realise how big a part of my life it’s been for the last 15 months.

 

Precocious was different. I didn’t write it to any kind of deadline, no-one was waiting to read it. I didn’t know if anyone would ever read it. Although I wrote the first draft quickly, I had years to tinker with it before it eventually went out into the world. My experience with the second book has been more intense, not least because I made it my actual job for a year, not something I just squeezed in late at night whenever I could muster the energy (although in reality that’s how much of it was written: old habits etc.).

 

Nowadays I have a few other jobs. When I leave my waitressing shifts I go home and take nothing with me (apart from sore feet, sometimes). Even as a therapist, my work with clients can be ongoing over several sessions, but the sessions themselves are limited to 50 minutes. And then I go home. I think about the work, yes, but it doesn’t live in my head all day and night, doesn’t walk alongside me the way that writing does. Writing is the best job in the world, but it is literally nonstop.

 

So how to know when a thing is ‘finished’? Is it ever, really? Between the second and third versions of this book, I’ve added close to 15,000 words and done a lot of shaping. That’s a fairly big edit. How do I know there aren’t another 15,000 in my head somewhere that just haven’t been excavated yet?

 

I’ve been trying to find the source for the following story, and can’t think for the life of me where I first saw it, but I’ll paraphrase it for you while acknowledging that it isn’t mine:

 

A man wrote a book. It took him ten years. At the end of the ten years, he looked at his finished work, and at himself, and he realised that he was not the same person as he was when he began it. So he changed it. The next draft took him another ten years. At the end of the ten years he realised he was not the same person and the book didn’t reflect who he now was, so…you guessed it. On, and on, and never finished.

 

I suppose part of the reason it can be hard to let go is there is always an alternative ending, always a different version, an idea of what could have been.

 

In this respect, the books we write are a bit like relationships. Sometimes even when they’re finished, they’re not finished. My relationship with my ex-husband will never be truly finished because we’re bound by our son. I ‘speak’ to him (albeit mostly brief texts) almost every day. Maybe more than I speak to anyone. That’s weird, when I think about it. There have been other relationships I’ve had to finish unequivocally to protect my emotional health, but they still linger in the shadows of memory, so are they ever really over? There are people we are never quite finished with because they have taken away a little piece of our hearts. They are part of us.

 

So are our books.

 

So I’ve started to think about it a bit differently. One of the lovely things about having Precocious out in the world has been the realisation that it doesn’t belong to me any more. (That’s one of the hardest things, too, but mostly lovely). I’ve been to book groups and heard almost as many different interpretations, feelings, responses, as there have been people. This has made me realise that as a writer, your job is simply to take the book as far as you possibly can. The reader will take it from there. And from there, there are so many places it can finish up. That’s the most exciting part of the journey.

 

 

 

 

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Grown-up cups and plates

 

I don’t normally write about motherhood on my blog, but I was prompted to do this after my son, on Saturday morning, drank from what he called a ‘grown-up cup’, ran his own bath and then informed me, with some satisfaction, that he doesn’t need me any more.

 

This post comes with a bit of a warning. As a rule I try to resist making my little boy my only topic of commentary on social media, even though in reality he dwarfs everything else in my world in the manner of some benevolent 5-year-old giant. Occasionally I document some of the funny things he says (a recent favourite was when he misheard ‘inset day’ as ‘insect day’ and proceeded to refer to it as ‘bug day’. Who knows what he thinks the teachers are up to on these days? Fumigating? Show and tell with their pet millipedes and spiders?), mainly to communicate with family who might be interested, and in a way to curate him for myself.

 

But generally I find people who go on about how much they love their kids a bit, well, boring. And obvious. My inner response tends to be: I should bloody well hope you do love them! To my mind it’s a bit like announcing to Facebook that you breathe, or that you didn’t torture any bunny rabbits today. Of course you love your kids.

 

So with this admission in mind, I apologise if I veer towards the sentimental, the obvious, in this post. I guess you don’t have to read on. Anyway, back to Saturday and the thought train his little comment set me off on.

 

Now, my son is five. Obviously he does need me, quite a bit. Nevertheless, his announcement caused my eyes to prickle a little. Because every day I’m simultaneously delighted by his little steps towards independence, and saddened by them.

 

Motherhood is a series of these dichotomies. One by one you put away things that you think you’re glad to see the back of: nappies, dummies, the moses basket and later, the cot, ceremoniously replaced with the ‘big bed’. But each milestone is bittersweet. Even as you’re celebrating the new person they’re becoming, you’re saying goodbye to the baby they were.

 

For example, now that my son can read, his voracious appetite for books and comics brings me, a lifelong bibliophile, immense joy and pride. But it’s another job he doesn’t need Mummy for. So I bring increasingly challenging books to bedtime each night in a pathetic effort to ‘big up my part’, but he either gets bored and asks where the pictures are, or starts sneakily skipping ahead, reading aloud whole sentences on the following page.

(What’s more, I can no longer get away with, after a long day, reading only the first line or two on each page and skipping through a book – although to be fair, he got wise to this ruse pretty quickly; long before he could read, he was memorizing whole Julia Donaldsons and would correct me if I got a single word wrong. The bugger.)

 

There have been lots of things written about ‘last times’, in terms of childhood, some of them touching, many of them close to mawkish. But their message is consistent, I think, and it’s what occurred to me this weekend: pay attention.

 

On Christmas morning, at 5am (ugh – I know – but he was awake and I had no chance of coaxing him back to sleep, as he knew the night had brought not just Santa but, almost as enticingly, Nana and Granddad), before the frenzy of paper-tearing, Lego-building and chocolate-eating began, my son and I lay in his bed together, momentarily calm, heads touching, whispering. And it occurred to me: He will never be 5 years old on Christmas morning again. Blindingly obvious, I know, but what can I tell you? It was 5am. I squeezed him, smelled his hair as I often do in the manner of some desperate, wistful admirer being allowed to embrace her idol, and took the time to really listen to his early-morning chat, his hopes for the day ahead, and to feel the shape and weight of him, which would never again be precisely what it was in that moment.

 

Some people call it mindfulness, I guess. Living in the moment, being aware of where you are right now, being grateful. It can be hard as a parent, when the days hurtle past in a blur of feeding, cleaning and picking up after small people whose very purpose is to outgrow you. I suppose that blur is the reason I wanted to pause for a moment and write this blog.

 

I don’t believe I’ve run my son’s bath, or read to him, for the last time. Not yet. But I suppose it will come (well, I hope so – if I’m running his baths for him when he’s eighteen, I won’t be giving myself top marks as a mother).

 

In the meantime, when he told me he didn’t need me, I told him I’m proud of him (as I try to every day) but that I need him quite a lot, still. He gave me a big hug, we high-fived, and then we ate breakfast together, on grown-up plates.

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