Thursday, September 29, 2005

If you are happy and you know it...

AUTUMN WAS once my most favourite time of the year. I love the changing of the colours, the blustery weather and switching on my collection of Tiffany lamps to ward off the longer nights.

Lately, however, the autumn nights have lost some of their appeal. Yes, I do still very much enjoy basking in the comforting glow of my Tiffany lamps and sitting on my comfy (second hand) sofa listening to the wind and rain battering against the windowpanes- but increasingly I've found it has also become a time for reflection.
Being a bonefide pessimist (I try to be optimistic, honestly, I'm just not very good at it) my reflections don't tend to warm the cockles of my heart so I have to make a conscious effort to think happy thoughts as the darker nights creep in.
This week I was asked what has been the best day of my life to date. It prompted me to make a list of very positive experiences which I'm determined to hold on to and remind myself off on those nights on the sofa when the whistling of the wind isn't enough to make me smile.
I would love to be one of those women who puts hand on heart and says that the day I became a mammy was up there in my "perfect day" list- but let's look at this realistically for a moment.
Labour hurts. It hurts a lot. And you get poked and prodded in your most intimate of areas by complete strangers. That happens a lot. And then people use words like tearing. In my case, they used that word a lot.
Oh yes, I had a beautiful son by the end of it- but that wasn't without a considerable amount of blood, sweat, tears and a very genuine offer by me to pay for a C-section if it would "just get this bloody baby out". (They declined my offer, despite me shouting at my other half to get the credit card out of my handbag and hand it over).
The end product is indeed perfection personified- but the day itself was an emotional and physical rollercoaster that is not exactly up there in my mind for utter perfection. (Put it this way I won't be gathering together a group of singers or bands and re-recording that Lou Reed classic to celebrate the event!)
So, having quickly ruled out the most obvious choice for my 'Best Day Ever', I began to rack my overworked brains for another memory which could take the top title.
Being a pedantic pain the rear end, I also made a decision to rule out the second most obvious choice- my wedding day. Yes, that day was fabulous. I felt like a princess from beginning to end (with the notable exception of screaming I was too fat as I put my dress on just at the moment my nerves reached fever pitch).

The overwhelming emotions of the day- joy, gratitude (to my family and friends- not to himself- he was the lucky one!), and excitement will never leave me. A wedding day is a one off. It can never be repeated, and as I thought more and more about the situation I realised the best days are those unexpected moments of perfection where you feel all is right with God and the world.
And so I recalled the moment when myself and my brother and sisters were crammed into the back of our ramshackle family car singing "Oh We Ain't Got a Barrel of Money" on the way to a family holiday.
Or I recalled the day myself, my aunt and my sister cycled our way to Grianan Fort from our Rosemount home with a packet of custard creams for a picnic and an old radio. We pushed our bikes up that mammoth hill singing "I Have Confidence" from the 'Sound of Music' and as we freewheeled at a fierce (and probably exceptionally dangerous) speed back down the hill we roared with laughter the whole time, giddy with our own childish sense of achievement. (Even better that we overtook a tractor and garnered a few dirty looks from the grumpy driver).
And coming more up to date, when myself, the wee man and the big man whom I am married to went on our family holiday to Rathmullan this year we had a day that, in my mind, comes as close to perfection as could be.
We set out early for a drive to Glenveagh National Park- somewhere I hadn't visited in years and himself had never seen. Being a mammy now, i fulfilled my pre-ordained responsibilities of making far too many soggy tomato, egg and onion and ham sandwiches and packing them in a cool bag.
Wearing suitable quantities of sun cream (I guess I can be an optimist some of the time) we walked through the gardens, played in the wee park and laughed as Joseph toddled unsteadily through the grass whooping with delight to have both mammy and daddy all to himself.
And then we sought out a certain seat which I know my own daddy loves. (My poor other half was dragged the length and breadth of Glenveagh as I determinedly refused to give up until I found that perfect spot).
And as I sat there, staring out at the lake, feeling the heat of the sun and hearing my son and husband laugh and giggle to themselves I felt at peace.
Contentment doesn't come all that often in this mad and crazy world, but at that moment and on that day, there was contentment in abundance.
So I guess when I'm feeling a little blue during the dark winter nights, I will just close my eyes and imagine my comfy sofa is that bench. The glow of the lamps will try their hardest to mimic the glow of the sun and I'll thank God and anyone who wants to listen that even though I'm months past that perfect day I can still hear the laughter of my husband and son whenever I want.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake

Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake
WHEN I was a wee girl the mammy of one my school friends made the best birthday cakes in the world- bar none.

We used to love being invited to her daughters' birthday parties because you just never knew what you would find on the table when you showed up with your birthday card, best dress and £1 box of Maltesers from Dorian's Newsagents in Beechwood.
One year there would be a beautifully decorated tennis court moulded out of a marzipan and icing- completed with little figures hitting a ball back and forth across the net. The next you would find a glamorous Barbie doll bedecked in a glorious ball gown- the skirt of which was made entirely of sponge cake and multi-coloured icing.
While equally delicious, my own mammy preferred the quick baked victoria-sponge-slathered-in-chocolate-and-smattered-with-smarties approach to birthday cake making.
My friend's mammy, however, had birthday parties which were in another league. She introduced us to the concept of Top Hats (those wee marshmallow and chocolate treats) tray bakes and green Quosh (we only ever had boring old Kia Ora in our house).
She was the uber mammy of the 80s, with a perfect house, a gorgeously groomed garden and a mind full of weird and wonderful party games to keep us all amused. You were no one on the party circuit if you didn't get invited to her renowned bashes- and no party was complete without at least one child throwing up through sheer over indulgence.
(To prevent any distress or offence being caused to my own mammy or any other mammy whose party I attended as a child- all the parties of my childhood were fun and greatly appreciated.)
Perhaps all the other mammies of the day wanted to hit uber mammy a good slap, but as a naive little girl I thought she was the bees knees and promised myself there and then I would be the kind of mammy who baked her own biscuits and created birthday cakes all the other parents would envy.
Needless to say, I've not lived up to my promises. Joseph's first birthday cake came courtesy of Doherty's Bakery and the nearest he has come to home-baked wholesome cooking is the carrot cake a colleague of mine baked in his honour.
So in a fit of mammy-guilt combined with a mad notion that I could make Nigella Lawson look like Waynetta Slob I set about opening my very own Allan home bakery last weekend.

I reasoned that the cost of stocking a hitherto bare baking cupboard with a variety of flours, flavours, fillings and sugars would be a worthy investment as my freezer and cupboards filled up with batch upon batch of delicious bakes and treats ready to take on any daring member of the yummy mummy brigade.
I searched the Internet for suitable recipes and tortured a few friends along the way to share their own baking secrets (including the colleague of the delicious carrot cake fame) and I familiarised myself with the concept of vanilla essence and baking powder. (I'm still not entirely sure what the difference is between baking powder and bicarbonate of soda- a bag of freshly baked peanut butter and raisin cookies goes to whoever can tell me!).
So on Saturday afternoon I donned my designer pinny, pulled my hair back off my perfectly made up face and set about becoming Claire Allan, Uber Mammy of the Noughties.
Within a short time, however, I started to grow a little flustered as I sifted, folded and battered my concoctions to within an inch of their lives. My image of domestic bliss was shattered somewhat when, instead of standing side by side with my son enjoying some bonding, I instead felt my blood pressure raising as the wee man decided it would be more fun to stand beside me calling "Ut nonny, ut!" (Translation "Up, Mammy, Up!")
When he tried for the 13th time to climb into the oven ("Ah wan light nonny") I had to call my husband through to rescue his child and what was left of my sanity. There was I, standing amid a cloud of flour, a trail of cookie mix splattered on every surface while himself looked on at me with a mixture of pity and disgust. I realised then I was more Swedish Chef from the Muppet Show than Nigella Lawson- all that was missing was me shouting "Put de chicky in de basket" in a funny voice.
But an hour later, with the wee man ensconced safely in the living room, I stood in my reclaimed kitchen watching my cookies cool by the window, breathing in deeply the delicious aroma of home baking; and I felt great about myself.
I even felt, dare I say it, somewhat of a rebel. After all us modern women aren't supposed to be interested in baking, cooking or anything that could possibly be construed as being tied to the kitchen sink or cooker.
But I felt I was carrying on a tradition- where mammies baked for their children on Saturday afternoons the city over. And as Joseph made "yummy" sounds while dipping his chocolate chip cookie into the remains of his spaghetti bolognaise after dinner (he is a strange child) I felt like a success.
I still doubt I will be of a standard to perfect the best birthday cake in Derry by the time his next big day rolls around- but somewhere down the line I hope someone will fondly recall Joseph Allan's mammy and her status as queen of the birthday bashes.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Some quick grumbles from a mad mammy

(Fat) Sod's Law
So men have an easier time of losing weight than women! It's enough to make me take my scales and throw them out of the bathroom window in frustration.
A survey by Slimming World revealed this week that men lose weight faster, and tend to stick to diets longer than their female counterparts. I haven't dared reveal that I've read about these results to my other half for fear he would simply start doing his "superior man" dance around the house before deciding to lose a couple of pounds and dropping a stone with relatively no effort whatsoever.
I tend to agree that men do have an easier time of losing weight than us girls- but they also get away with being overweight a lot easier than we do. They tend not to spend their teenage years yo-yoing up and down the scales either- therefore not screwing up their metabolism to the point it takes virtual starvation to drop an inch.
In my next life I'm definitely coming back as a man.

Not as smart as I look
A scary number of years ago (19!) I passed my 11 Plus with flying colours. I went on to study at Thornhill, where I got a respectful nine GCSEs and three A Levels before gaining a 2:1 in my primary degree before gaining a post graduate Diploma and Masters Degree in Newspaper Journalism.
It's scary then that I can't manage to answer the questions pitched at today's school wains.
The BBC have been testing our knowledge of basic English and Maths and my scores have been embarrassing to say the least. I no longer remember the difference between a simile and a metaphor and as for cubing, squaring or doing other weird and wonderful things to numbers- well it's all a blessed mystery to me.
I guess it is time I embraced the concept of life-long learning again.

Ladies- some decorum please!
It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of Desperate Housewives- especially Teri Hatcher- whose portrayal of Lois Lane prompted my career in journalism. (Still waiting to meet my Clark Kent).
However I've been a little disgusted and ashamed to read of the alleged off screen scrapping between the co-stars over who is regarded the most famous/ who looks better on screen and who should win the awards.
When Felicity Huffman (the fabulous Lynette) won an Emmy this week for best comedy actress it was rumoured that Teri Hatcher refused to have her photo taken with her co-star because she was jealous.
Whatever the reason for the spat between the housewives, it's about time they wised up and acted their age- not their teeny weeny shoe sizes.
I'm sorry but it when it comes to my store of sympathy i'm afraid I'm all out when it comes to feeling sorry for rich, gorgeous actresses who's only concern is who stands in the centre of a photograph.

Grumpy old woman
I'm afraid that as I approach the grand old age of 30, I find I am becoming increasingly less tolerant of other people and their "endearing little habits".
So for your information, habits I find particularly annoying at the moment include:
*Not saying thank you when I stop and hold a door open to allow you through- funnily enough I'm not actually employed as a full-time door-open-upper!
*People who drop litter in the street, or worse still tell their children it is okay to do so.
*Rude shop assistants who would rather talk to their friends than bother to say "please" and "thank you" when serving you.
Are manners something we have forgotten about in the 21st Century or do we just not care anymore? It's about time people got back to basics and remembered that politeness costs nothing.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Back off the big girls

THERE IS little in the world that makes me happier than curling up under the duvet on a windy winter morning with a hot cup of tea, some warm buttered toast and Phil and Fern for company. (Phil and Fern being on the TV of course- and not actually in the bed with me).

Watching This Morning is a wee bit of chicken soup for the soul- it doesn't challenge you in any way- it just washes over you making you feel instantly that wee bit brighter.
When it comes to Fern and Phil erupting into fits of giggles, I can't help but laugh along too and I get the distinct impression that sharing a bottle of wine and a chocolate cake with La Britton would be the best of craic.
I see Fern Britton as a kind of "every woman". She has been there, done that, bought the T-shirt and made the documentary about it. But while she enjoys her success as a presenter on TV, you just get the impression she doesn't see her work as anything other than a laugh a minute.
So it annoys me when people choose to attack her simply because of her weight. It would seem there are people out there, even in these so-called enlightened times who just have to act the playground bully and do their best to find faults in people and highlight them for the world to see.
Last week one of the weekly glossies printed pictures of Fern in her bikini enjoying a family holiday. Now, fair enough Fern is never going to give J-Lo a run for her money in the figure stakes- but she was grinning in the photos- clearly not giving a rat's bum about what people thought of her.
Of course, she was berated for being a big lump of a thing and had to fight back with responses along the lines of "big is beautiful" and she would rather be "big and jolly than skinny and miserable".
You would have thought that would have been enough to call off the hounds, but no. Someone had to persist. While reading the Daily Mail (not my usual read I hasten to add) I came across an article by Amanda Platell.
Ms. Platell asserted that Fern Britton simply had to be lying to say she was happy at her current size. She followed that comment up with a suggestion that the bubbly presenter was actually a selfish oul bint (or words to that effect) for "choosing" to be obese and risking her life.
And there, you see, is where my blood started to boil. Because, as far as I'm aware, none of us "chooses" to be overweight or obese. I didn't wake up this morning and walk out of my house to say (ala that wee man from 'The Fast Show') "Today I'll will mostly be a big lump of a girl"- and I'm pretty sure Fern Britton didn't either.
Now I will concede, when the mid afternoon lull hit today I did in fact choose a chocolate brownie over a piece of fruit and I have on occasion been known to choose to eat a bag of chips rather than a bowl of pasta- but nowhere along the line have I made a conscious decision to eat myself into oblivion.

Matter of choice
If it was a simple matter of choice, I would be a size 14. My hair would be naturally highlighted. My shape would be more hourglass than pear shaped and I would feel confident to strip off in communal changing rooms.
|'m pretty sure that give the choice, Fern Britton would like to do the same- but it's not that easy. Like me I'm sure she has always been on the heavier side of things. Funnily enough just feeling that little bit bigger than your friends and colleagues can have enough of an impact to make you convince yourself you in fact a big fat lump of a thing so that you don't really realise that extra weight is creeping on here and there.
And then, being women, we have the added joys of pregnancy and the weight gain that goes with that to contend with- and trust me from bitter experience I can tell you that juggling motherhood, a full time job and attempts to get to the gym can be hard going.
I'm sure that Fern, along with myself, know our weight isn't exactly our healthy ideal. But we don't need people like Amanda Platell telling us we are a drain on the NHS because of it, or that we are putting our needs before those of our family- because quite frankly it's not true.
It has taken me 12 months to lose a paltry 19lbs. But that said, as I swim or walk five times a week I'm quite sure my fitness levels would put some skinny minnies to shame. I've bravely overcome my dread of wearing a swimming suit to take the wee man swimming, or do my own 40 length sprint five times a week. I am a frequent figure on the so-called "Fat Arse Boulevard" (The river walk to Sainsbury's) and we have just had to retire one buggy due to overuse by me and walking partner Joseph.
To look at me though, as you would looking at Fern Britton, you would just see a "grand big girl". You may, like Amanda Platell, want to make me think I should be ashamed of who I am and what I look like. But you don't actually know me. So to all those skinnies who like to judge us bigger girls, please remember you don't know about our own struggles, our victories or whether or not we are happy. So unless you have walked a mile in our oversized jeans you should really keep your opinions to yourself.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Back to school!

Back to school
DO YOU ever have that "back at school" dream? You know the one where you find yourself sat in a classroom about to sit your History A Level and panicking that you can't remember any of the facts and figures any more?

It's one of my most common recurring dreams- right up there with my teeth falling out or being at work without my shoes.
The dream usually consists of me feeling physically sick at the thought of being back in front of a teacher but suddenly realising, after some minor hyperventilation, that I passed the exam, I'm married, with a job and I don't need to sit any more exams (We will ignore, for the purposes of this column, the fact that I've not passed my driving test yet!).
The sense of relief I feel when it dawns on me that I'm past that "wee girl at school" phase is amazing- in fact I would go as far to say that the trauma of the dream is almost worth it for the relief factor. (It's like having the teeth dream and realising when you wake that you still have your choppers!)
So then it seems a little crazy (and a tad masochistic) that I would take it on myself to sign up for a night class.
But on Wednesday night I left my nightmares behind me and took part in my first ever night class- First Aid. While not exactly as fear inducing as A Level History, the very thought of going back to a learning environment did make me feel more than a little nervous.
I was never afraid of school as youngster, I quite enjoyed my years at Thornhill and even stayed in education for a further five years after to gain the qualifications I needed for this job. Perhaps, that is my problem; I'm all "schooled" out. So to walk into a classroom (okay, a playgroup with all the toys pushed to one side) gave me a case of the wibbly wobbly wonders.
I'm a little bit ashamed to admit that my knowledge of first aid before now has largely been gleaned from watching ER and Casualty. I had half a notion what to do in the event of a burn or a nosebleed and I knew (sort of) how to put someone in the recovery position thanks to a couple of years in the Briginis as a youngster- but that's about it.
As a responsible adult I felt it my duty to learn a little more though (the fact that the wee man has the capacity to scare the holy bejaysus out of me by turning blue or faking asthma attacks may or may not have something to do with that decision).

Feel the fear...
It was that thought that made me put my own fears and concerns about being a pupil again aside and go along anyway.
So, with a friend for support, I arrived at my class on Wednesday night (courtesy of the Templemore Early Years Centre). There we met "First Aid Doug"- who would be our teacher. (Immediately I breathed a sigh of relief we were not being faced with a teacher who demanded we respond in sing song voices "Good evening Mr. First Aid Doug").
Within an exceptionally short time I realised that my knowledge of first aid was, basically, shocking. Apparently, according to First Aid Doug, my attempts at the recovery position (before learning the proper way) would have me up in court for sexual assault and possibly murder.
So I decided to start listening as best I could as we learned all about airways, breathing and circulation, along with the use of the new fancy defibrillators which I'm now convinced every workplace or community centre should have.
Of course, much of it was spent in a state of shock (hand over mouth, shaking my head, feeling quite faint- I thought I might have needed some treatment myself) as we heard about some of the more traumatic experiences of a First Aider.
While we discussed the finer points of saving our children from choking, we all panicked a little as even though we were only working with a doll- all of us being mammies knew that if it came to our own children, or anyone else's, we would be fighting panic at the same time as trying to remember the proper way to save a life.
But then, I realised, wouldn't the panic be 10 times worse if you didn't have a notion where to even start? So taking some deep breaths I practised my back pats and chest thrusts (not nearly as exotic as it sounds).
The only truly dodgy moment for me was when my (size 12) partner had to practice the Heimlich manoeuvre on my not-quite-a-size-12-girth: rather than breathing feeling as was my mission, I breathed in as hard as I could to shrink my stomach in as much as possible.
That one blip aside, my return to the classroom was not as a painful as I thought it would and when I returned home I didn't have a single dream about sitting an exam, wearing a school uniform or trying to remember the facts of the Irish Famine. (There was an unfortunately bizarre dream about me trying to force my post baby bulge back into my wedding dress- but that's irrelevant).
My course continues next week. According to First Aid Doug, we will learn about bandaging, dealing with diabetics and get a chance to try CPR for ourselves on the adult sized mannequin. Dare I say, I'm actually quite looking forward to it!

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Suffer the little children

THERE IS something seriously wrong with the world when a quick glance at the BBC website on a Wednesday afternoon flags up three stories of inexplicable neglect or cruelty to children.

Yes, you've guessed it. It reached 4.30 on a Wednesday afternoon and the weekly panic about what exactly I'm going to write this column about this week kicked in, so I began my usual trawl of websites- from the weird and wonderful to more serious pages of online news services.
And as I clicked on the Beeb, I immediately saw three stories that made me realise that there simply was no other subject I could write about this week than the ongoing madness in this world that leads mothers to kill their children, or leave them neglected while they put their own needs first.
The first story was that of the murder of baby Alexander Gallon who was killed when arsonists set fire to his home. The news announced a 21-years-old woman had been arrested in connection with his death.
The fact that someone could willingly set fire to a house with a baby still inside was shocking enough- the fact that the person in question could well be a woman seemed even more shocking. Women are supposed to be nurturing creatures, surely?
But then reading on down the page, it's clear we are not perhaps the selfless creatures we would once have thought. The next story was that of 24-years-old Kelly Ann Rogerson who left her children (aged 4, 2 and 11 months) in the care of a teenager while she went on her second holiday to Turkey in the space of a month.
While the report stated the children were well cared for, I have to ask why any mother would think it acceptable or right to leave her children (basically who are still babies) in the care of a teenager while she swans off for fortnight in the sun?
And that was quickly followed up by a story of a woman who had appeared to jump in front of a high speed train with two children, thought to be her son and daughter. Both the woman and the young girl died instantly; the boy- thought to be three years old- is in a critical condition.
Now God knows what drove this woman to take such drastic action, but it is hard for any right minded person to comprehend the sense of desolation that must drive anyone to take the life of their own child.
While obviously my experiences as a mother colour to some extent my views on cruelty to children, it is not my maternal instinct that makes me react with anger or disbelief to such stories- it is the human side of me, that which simply knows the difference between right and wrong.

Childhood innocence
A quick look around in the world today shows that childhood innocence is not protected as fervently as it was back in my day. (Not that I'm ancient or anything, but I am a child of the late 70s/ early 80s).
I'm sure bad stuff happened back then. I'm sure mammies went on holidays without their wains and I'm sure some desperate souls took the lives of their children, but it didn't seem as common and it seemed to evoke more of a reaction than it does now.
My mother often recalls our early years with affection (I'm sure she is wearing super strength rose tinted glasses). Like many families in Derry of that time, we didn't have two brass ha'pennies to rub together. We lived in a wee council house in Creggan and Christmas came courtesy of the Derry Credit Union. Holidays were infrequent and there was never any talk of a break somewhere foreign for us children, or indeed for my parents.
But my mother maintains these were happy times, and for the most part I remember them as being such. Of course we knew of stranger danger, but we could still walk to school without fear for our lives- and you didn't do an in-depth vetting process before allowing your children to visit the neighbours up the street.
But, without a doubt children came first, or at least to me it seemed this way. And if the papers carried stories of neglect to, or murder of a child it was greeted with utter shock and condemnation the world over.
Sad to say but Ms. Rogerson, who went away on holiday without her kids, escaped without so much as a prison sentence. I'm sure we are all horrified at the death of Alexander Gallon, but next week I doubt we will be able to remember his name- because there will be another case to take our attention- just like we moved on from the deaths of Jamie Bulger, Sarah Payne, Hollie and Jessica, Victoria Climbie and countless, nameless, others.
We all know caring for children is hard work. Similarly we all know that there are more pressures on the family unit now than ever before. There are few and far between families who can afford to make the decision have one parent stay at home to mind the wee ones.
But what we seem to have forgotten in all of this is that our children rely on us for everything- from food and water to a sense of security and affection. It's time we all start focussing on those core values again and allow our children a childhood they can remember for all the right reasons.
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