Sunday, 30 December 2012

Let down by Downton this Christmas

***If you haven't seen series 3 or the Down Abbey Christmas Special 2012, this post contains spoilers***

None of your flat screen TV at our house. Ours is very similar to a 1980s microwave oven, dimensions-wise, plus it has no aerial. Good job, then, that my parents are far more "with-it" and have a flat screen HD telly which can record programmes, as the Downton Abbey Christmas Special was a treat we were all looking forward to this Boxing Day. A kind of reward for missing, on average, two and a half hours' sleep per night for the past four nights, due to Secundus' cough and cold, and for spending three hours on Christmas Day on the motorway.

Chestnuts were roasting on the open fire, the children's bedside tables were awash with calpol, olbas oil and vicks, and mum was looking for the remote. Christmas cards were strung up along the beams, the metallic decorations hung like festive sea anemones in the same place they had occupied every year since 1979, and it was not too early for a little sherry. Apart from the sound of Secundus' hacking cough, only the crackling of the fire and the usual rain lashing against the windows could be heard. It was time for Downton. 

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Be Liberated this New Year

"There is something so liberating about a new year," says Jennifer Tankersley, in 100 Days of a New Year, and I agree. "It is a second chance to make the most of this one life you’ve been given. It is an opportunity to tweak the things about yourself and your world that would benefit from new habits or a concentrated effort. There may have been failures in the past, but you are now one year smarter and have more experience. The New Year offers you another chance to grow." Tankersley's book is a fantastic navigational tool for doing just that. 

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Emergency Christmas Stockings on a Shoestring

No, I am not dyeing my legs with cold, strong tea and painting seems down the back with eyebrow pencil like they did in the War. I am talking about a Christmas Stocking Emergency which has just occurred chez Bayne. Like the hero he is, the King drove over to the Yorkites when he was working in that direction earlier in the week, to collect the missing Christmas decorations. This enabled us to pick out some of our favourite glass icicles from Germany to add to our Make Do and Mend tree, plus it meant we could continue with the tradition of putting out the angel candles. The King and I also expected the children's Christmas stockings to be in the same box, like they usually are.

No. That would be Too Simple.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Drains, Radiators and the Stay at Home Mum

The teacher in charge of Careers Advice at our school had a sort of cupboard in the library full of leaflets and aptitude tests, to which we had access about twice, during the Fifth and Lower Sixth. According to my profile, I could have been a vicar, a prison warden or a journalist, or a whole string of other jobs, most of which involved going to University first (ideally, in the school's eyes: Oxbridge). For reasons of self-preservation, I refused to even sit the entrance exams and wound up at a left-wing campus university doing a degree I strongly disliked, with no idea where it would lead. There were, needless to say, no leaflets describing being a Stay at Home Mum as a career option.

Taking the step to being a Stay at Home Mum (SAHM) by choice is one that needs courage and determination, as it is a role not currently respected by society, and still feels like an inadequate response when people ask "So what do you do?". (Yet another reason why I like being married to a self-employed chap - I never have to go to work's Christmas parties.) Being a SAHM when the children are little is just about forgiveable, but when they have started school, that's a real crime against the sisterhood, a waste of an education, the act of a downtrodden fool. No wonder then, that many women feel pressurised to return to work in some form, not just for the money, but for the social connection and status. And motherhood is presented as something for which we need a Survival Guide, rather than something in which to find contentment, satisfaction, enjoyment and meaning.

How refreshing to find a book which states from the onset that being a SAHM is a real privilege. "Perhaps," says Nicola Semple, author of How to be a Stay at Home Mum, (£8, available from Life After Maternity Leave) "you live far away from your extended family, with limited support to help with childcare." Lightbulb. Yes, that is in fact, my situation. So being a SAHM actually makes sense? I am not being idle or selfish? 

For the first time I realised that being a SAHM was nothing to apologise about and I felt like Semple gave me permission to be proud of my unconventional career path and the role I play in my family's life. Semple continues in this vein, stating that her book is not a survival guide because motherhood is not something simply to be "survived". She aims to show, rather, that it can be a positive experience, not just one belonging to our ancestors, and you don't have to give up your personal identity just because you are staying at home.

Essentially, if you live on one income as we do, you usually have enough money to buy what is needed but not every single thing each member of the family wants. Semple describes this as completely normal and suggests we deal with it by avoiding comparisons with other families. Yes, they may have two cars, three holidays a year, privately educated children etc etc but how do we know whether they are actually happier? 

In addition, How to be a Stay at Home Mum includes plenty of practical advice for families to mange their finances: basically:
"1. Spend less.
 2. Make the money you do spend go further.
 3. Identify ways of generating extra income."
This is the core of living on one income and is developed realistically and encouragingly by the author. It reminded me that we are doing the best we can; making the pennies go further is my raison d'etre; and I do bring some money into the home via this blog, online surveys/ market research, and my work as a proofreader.

Not only does Semple examine the financial aspects of a one income family, she also reminds SAHMs that they may need to consider their partner's feelings about being the sole breadwinner. How often do we actually put ourselves in our partner's shoes? Are daily commutes, team building-exercises, appraisals, the threat of redundancy, unreasonable customers and so on something we would really prefer? It is also good to take into account that nobody loves their job every single day, and that goes for SAHMs too.

I found it useful to read about Semple's various strategies to manage moods, and she leads us through each topic with a series of questions to help us reflect where our flashpoints are, followed by identifying action points to deal with the challenges, such as finding a routine, de-cluttering the house, or earning money for yourself, that come up in each chapter. This means we are engaged with the book and it becomes a manual rather than a collection of ideas we never put into practice.

In particular, Semple's description of "drains and radiators" resonated with me. If there is one thing I have learned in the last eight years it is to stay away from drains (a.k.a energy vampires) who are, among other things; "competitive, constantly acting superior, either in terms of knowledge or resources, unsupportive, unwilling to return a favour, widely divergent to you and your family in terms of personal values, unsympathetic to your responsibility to your family, for example friends without children who don’t understand how life has changed." If you are still putting up with people who can be described under those headings, it's time to move on. Instead, look for radiators, who buoy you up rather than drag you down, and make you feel positive and upbeat. An ideal New Year’s resolution for every mum in 2013. 

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Thinking Other Moms’ Homes are Neater Than Yours?

Do you ever visit other moms’ homes and wonder how they keep it so neat? 

Do you ever sit around in your own home with toys strewn over the floor, laundry piles (both clean and dirty) beckoning for attention, and three meals' worth of dishes stacked next to the sink and wonder why you are the only mom on the planet who cannot keep up with her home? 

If you answered yes to either of these questions, then you may be suffering from “TOMHANTY” Syndrome (Thinking Other Moms’ Homes Are Neater Than Yours). The symptoms of this terrible disease are guilt, envy, stress, and even withdrawal (did I mention guilt?). You look around as you walk from room to room wondering how it could have gotten so messy since yesterday. You believe that the new friend you just made from your weekly visit to the library could never let her house look like a tornado just went through it. You are sure that your friend whose house you visit occasionally for a scheduled playgroup would never have dust bunnies the size of . . .well, a bunny.

Our Simple Country Life
Welcome to the Real Moms Club, where it is not just about being a mom, but being real and knowing that you don’t have to be a perfect housekeeper. Maybe in the days of our grandmothers when society said that kids could roam unsupervised and free around town, but a mom’s house was a reflection of who she was as a woman. Today, there is a different set of priorities for many moms, and a perfect house is not usually the highest on the list, although we still imagine we are being judged on everything from how we raise our children to how much education we pursue to how great a job we land and finally to how tidy we keep house. Moms of today are stretched and pulled in many directions. Life is rarely as simple as a clean house. Stop telling yourself that you are not a good mom because your house is not always as neat as you think other moms’ homes are. Most moms are struggling to keep up as well. 

What is the cure to TOMHANTY Syndrome, you ask? Well, you could drop by a friend’s house unannounced with the pretext of delivering some home-baked cookies; you could watch her face turn beet red with shame as she turns to survey the wreck of toys, laundry, and dishes behind her; you could listen to her offer up every reason why her house is in such disarray; or maybe you could just take me at my word when I say that you are not alone. Release your guilt by making a list of what you DID accomplish today: got kids dressed, dropped kids off at school and picked kids up after, washed and folded a load of laundry, paid bills, took dog to vet, fed family for the day. It all counts toward making your house a home in which your family can grow and feel loved.

Jennifer Tankersley is the creator of ListPlanIt where you can find 400 lists and planning pages including cleaning schedules, daily to do lists, grocery lists, and holiday/party planning to put your world in order.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

A Make Do and Mend Christmas Tree

Two things were against us this year when decorating our Christmas tree. One: we don't have a budget of £50 to spend on a tree which is only going to grace us with its presence for a few weeks. (Why DO Christmas trees seem to have doubled in price in the last couple of years?) Two: we had forgotten that all our Christmas decorations are in storage at the King's parents' house, where we had stored them in anticipation of a loft conversion this year which had to be postponed.

To tackle issue no.1 took a fair amount of diesel and patience as the King scoured our locale, looking for reasonably-priced trees. In the end he brought home a sweet baby tree for £25, which may survive the festive season and could then be planted out into the front garden and, in theory, used again in 2013.

Tackling issue no.2 was less of a headache. Once we had established that the King didn't really fancy a two-hour drive to his parents and back (we had only visited them the day before), and he had gone outside rather crossly to change a couple of tyres on the trailer, I decided to rise to the challenge myself and create a Make Do and Mend Christmas tree, with the help and encouragement of Prima and Secundus. 

In case you find yourself in a similar predicament, here are some tips to keep your tree a simple pleasure. 

1. Slice an orange (perhaps left over from Christingle?) thinly and dry on a baking sheet in a low oven or on the top of your woodburner. Once dried, thread cotton through the centre of the slice and make a loop to hang on the tree branch. You can also make decorations out of dried slices of apple but I haven't done that yet.

2. Raid your jewellery box and hang dangly earrings, pendants, necklaces and bracelets from branches. I seem to have a lot of necklaces with birdcages, carousels and keys on them, and Prima lent me her best "pearl" bangle and home-made button decoration.

3. If your children have novelty lights in their bedrooms, ask to borrow them just over Christmas - lights make a big difference to a tree.

4. Find suitable biscuit cutters such as gingerbread people, a heart or a star, and hang them on the tree using ribbon or strips of material. Tie ribbons on to branches - choose festive colours if possible.

5. Add lavender bags, shiny keys, fairy wands, hanging hearts, little toys and hand-made decorations from school or Brownies for additional Home Front points. 

Like everything else in our house, our Christmas tree is a bit haphazard and tatty, and rather unconventional, but that's the way I like it. Secundus certainly did. He dressed up in his Spiderman costume and lay on a pillow, pretending to be baby Jesus, while we all sang Away in a Manger. Beat that, Martha Stewart!

Tightrope walking between health and budget

With me, it's all or nothing, to steal a phrase from Oklahoma. I have a tendency not to do things by halves, whether that's celebrity crushes or self-help fads. One minute you'll find me virtually stalking Sean Bean and trying to connect with the Goddess within me, the next minute I lose all interest and start working out how to go "off-grid". To strike a balance and take things one step at a time is not something which comes easily to me. It's probably a good job I'm not a tight-rope walker. 

However, one aspect of life which remains constant, whether I'm considering taking up fencing or giving up alcohol, is grocery shopping. Anne Simpson's Grocery Budget Toolbox ($4.99, available here) is a great way of achieving balance in the twin challenges of staying in budget and feeding our families healthily. The main aim of this e-book is to help readers buy as much healthy food as they can, without feeling they have to get a second mortgage out to fund a weekly organic grocery box delivery.

The Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen
Although most of us know that the healthiest produce tends to be organic, fresh and local, many of us can't afford groceries under those headings. Simpson lists the "Dirty Dozen" (produce we are well-advised to buy organic if at all possible) and the "Clean Fifteen" (produce which tends to absorb fewer pesticides in any case, so is less of a priority in terms of picking organic.) This, and her tips for making meat go further and opting for wholegrains, is an excellent start to keeping our menus healthy and cheap. I particularly like "Things to cross off your grocery list forever" which identifies a number of items which are bad news health-wise or budget-wise, including juice and cold cereal.

Price Book and printables
For me, the concept of a price book has been superseded by shopping online via MySupermarket, but Simpson covers this approach (and setting up a budget in the first place) in helpful detail for those who want to try it. She also provides a number of relevant printables at the end of the book and a large section of weblinks pertinent to each of the nine chapters.

Price Caps
The practice of Once a Month shopping is intriguing and I can see the benefits of it, especially for people who live in rural areas. Couponing is a section more relevant to American readers than British, but Simpson's idea of fixing price caps would be universally useful to anyone trying to cut their supermarket bills. "A price cap", she explains, "is simply the most you are willing to pay for a given item. Using your knowledge of regular prices, combined with your observations regarding frequent sale prices, you can come up with a price cap for every category of groceries that you purchase on a regular basis." I have already started to do this on some products: I will not pay more than £4 for a jumbo jar of Marmite, for example. 

Farmers' markets have always seemed to be out of my league, money-wise, but Simpson's advice about how to get good deals has encouraged me to support my local farmers' market more frequently. Attending late in the day, for instance, is a good way to get top quality, local, fresh produce at reduced prices. 

DIY food
I am also determined to have a go at the recipes for DIY food. Even creme fraiche can be made at home, and Simpson's ideas for what to do with stale bread, odds and ends of fruit and veg, and so on, can be adopted by all of us. While there are tips that go back at least one generation - such as that egg whites can be frozen, for example (who knew?) - Simpson does not shy away from modern life and includes a whole chapter on saving money in the internet age. 

A new Mantra for 2013
The Grocery Budget Toolbox is a superb way to get into the habit of cutting down grocery bills without cutting healthy food out of our menu plans. Taken all at once it could be overwhelming, but follow the author's advice to make changes little by little and soon the mantra "Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without" will become second nature. 

Monday, 17 December 2012

Drop your perfectionism and foster creativity

Jillian Riley, author of Raising a Creative Kid, is a "kid person". I, despite my background in teaching, my almost maternal love for my sister from about age 3, and the fact that I have two children of my own, would not describe myself thus. Eco-worrier, coffee addict, 1940s keeno, carpenter's mate, hat wearer : yes. A Kid Person : no.

To get a lot out of the Raising a Creative Kid e-book (available here for $7.99) there's no need to work with children or even home-school, however. All you need is an appreciation of what's good about being a creative person. This isn’t something we’re encouraged to do very often. Riley’s spelling out of the positive aspects of being a creative person showed me just how narrow-minded I can be in my attitude to myself and my children. 

We must be high-achievers, ambitious, specialists, sociable and measurable. Not creative. To describe a child as “creative” is to suggest we are low on adjectives. We don’t mean “problem-solver”, “experimenter”, “thinker”, or “someone who learns from mistakes”, and yet these are all aspects of creativity we could cherish. Instead, creative has become a euphemism for “loner”, “unmanageable”, “messy”. No, our children must not experiment. They must follow the path of literacy and numeracy and tick the boxes.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Uh-oh! Not a POEM, surely?

Tightrope walker

Tightrope walker in your white pants,
You boldly follow
The curve
Of the
Wearing your imaginary high-heels,
In time to a half-known song
That no-one else can hear.

A few graceful acrobatics give way
To the early indecision
Of a child’s first steps towards
Outstretched arms.

But today, you face
Away from me.
The tiny glimpse of soft,
Rounded limbs is gone.
As your wet footprints
Mark a trail
Across the tarmac
And into their house. 

A E Bayne, 2012

5 Ways to Keep the Home Fires Burning

We've only had our multi-fuel stove for a couple of weeks and already we can't imagine life without it. Not only is a real fire beautifully warming (I am not even wearing wrist-warmers while typing this), it can be economical (we are pretty sure we will save money on our utility bills) and bring a real Home Front spirit into your home. 

1. A woodburner or multi-fuel stove will heat at least one room really well, which makes everyone want to gather there. Turn the central heating off in the rest of the house and you will naturally congregate where the fire is. This means you need to think how the room can best be used to accommodate the family - a large table, comfy seating etc - before you install the stove. At the weekend, for example, Prima and Secundus were making / writing Christmas cards, I was at the same table sewing some heart garlands on the sewing machine and we had the door open into the kitchen where the King was making porter cake. Had we not had the fire lit, we would have probably been heating the whole house, and all been in separate rooms. 

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Simple pleasures #6 : Rollers

At the risk of coming over all "Call Me Old-fashioned, But...", I am not that keen on Prima having painted nails. I hear a lot of mums lamenting how quickly their daughters grow up, and what a shame it is they can't be children for longer, and not only do I agree, I do something about it. This means disappointing my seven year-old on a regular basis by not giving in to pester power about make-up and nail varnish. I am not going to buy her "Princess in Training" crop tops or get her ears pierced. Don't get me started on mobile phones, televisions in bedrooms and i-pads for primary school children.

An unforeseen occurrence a couple of years ago meant I had to alter the boundaries somewhat. It was Secundus' last day at play school and they were holding a summer party. In true non-discriminatory style, the staff asked both girls AND boys if they would like their nails painted. So, of course, four year-old Secundus gleefully came home with his fingernails and toenails painted red and blue. You know, just your average day at play school in Northern England.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Lindy Hop onto the Vintage Bandwagon

Vintage style is all over the place at the moment. Second-hand shops specialising in vintage clothing, accessories, homewares and so on, can be found in most UK towns, and there are plenty of repro clothing manufacturers and pattern makers that can effectively re-create pre-and-post wartime fashions. With online shopping providing more vintage buying opportunities than ever before, you would think it would be easy to dress a la ration book. However, as Debbie Wells, the author of The 1940s Style Guide points out, finding accurate information and products can be like finding a thimble in a black-out.  And with vintage becoming more popular, prices are starting to rise.

Photo : D Sessions
The 1940s Style Guide is a complete illustrated guide to that decade's fashion for women, an era which has been compared, economically, to the financial stresses many of us find ourselves in today. What sets this book apart from many other titles I own relating to this period is the author's attitude to history. This is a personal tribute, not just a fashion look book. Wells (pictured left) states that the "desire to return to (her) homegrown, homemade roots...tugs at (her) heart strings", and this is a feeling I share. I am also impressed by not only her level of detail - great for re-enacters - but also the balance she strikes between history, advice and shopping. 

The Kitchen Triumph of a Seven Year-Old

As Prima approaches her eighth birthday, we are treated to many little signs that she is growing up and waking up to the Big Wide World. All of a sudden, pink is not the colour of choice. Brownie badges are within her grasp. Before we know it, she is reading The Oldie in the bathroom. And on Sunday, she asked if she could learn to cook something. The King and I were pleased and astonished, and gently steered her towards a lesson in making baked beans on toast.

As an ex primary-school teacher, the King is good at breaking tasks down into small manageable chunks. This meant Prima wasn't overwhelmed with a whole list of instructions. I am good at remembering details like suggesting she wear an apron and use the step stool. We also realised that, despite living in this house for nearly eight years, Prima has never noticed where I put saucepans, plates etc, so does not know where anything is. I could just hear my own mum saying incredulously "But you MUST know where the bread bin is!" and decided to be completely patient. We all wanted this experiment to be a success, both in terms of edible food, and no accidents. 

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Silk purses, sow's ears and lavender bags

It's not often that I make something by hand which might even be good enough to sell. Usually I'm rushing to get something finished because I've promised Prima she can wear it tomorrow, or because I'm sick and tired of yanking jersey through the sewing machine. All too often, the end result is nothing like the one beautifully depicted in the instructions.  This is also partly due to the fact that I am too mean to buy gorgeous fabric and instead try to get the same effect with an old school sweatshirt and a couple of bits of felt. I am always ignoring the fact that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

Perhaps I am learning. Or perhaps it was simply a matter of the right book at the right time. Today's project, which was inspired by 101 Ways to Stitch Craft Create (£10.66, David and Charles), went like a dream. This hardback book features (obviously) 101 quick and easy projects to stitch, sew, knit, bead and fold. While the projects are described in "step to step" terms, the tone is neither patronising nor presumptuous. Each project takes up one page and is accompanied by a photograph of the end result, which makes you really want to try it. Next on my list are the Union Jack card, Quilted oven glove, and Russian doll decorations (don't tell Prima!).

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Are You Being a Good Friend…To Yourself?

Guest post by Christine Arylo: 
3 Simple but Mighty Self-Love Practices for Being Your Own Best Friend

Be kind to others. Show up and be supportive. Be there unconditionally and without judgement when your friends are having a hard time. Tell your friend the truth, even when it’s hard. Remember to celebrate you friends. Cheerlead for them. Inspire them to go for their dreams. Respect your friends, honour them, appreciate them, be compassionate – in other words love them.

These are the rules of being a good friend. And while you may not be perfect at always showing up as a good friend for others, you know how to love others well. And when you do show up as a good friend, you feel good about yourself. Proud. Like you are doing a good thing, being a good person. Because you inherently know that giving love to others is a good thing.

But take that love and friendship and apply it to yourself and something different happens. Suddenly you feel guilty for taking care of yourself, selfish for choosing yourself first, and shy about tooting your own horn. Giving love to yourself in the forms you need it most – compassion, appreciation, nurturing, pleasure, etc. – feels wrong, weird and uncomfortable. In situations where you’d have no problem telling a friend to take a break, stop working, leave a relationship, or go for her dreams, you find yourself totally unable to give yourself permission to do what you really need. Until now.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Five Ways to Win the Supermarket Game


I appreciate that the above photograph must be one of the most dull and depressing to be found on Mumtopia. Harvest Festival it ain’t. But the purpose of it is to show you some of the ways I manage to keep my grocery shopping budget to around £50 ($80) a week, which is not bad for a family of four.

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