Friday, 18 July 2014

Holidaying across the generations: Reporting back

My previous post 'Holidaying across the generations' was all about our forthcoming holiday.  It was to be our first week away with both our children and my mum.

Said holiday has now been and gone. I feel, therefore, that it is only fair to report back on how it all went...

I'll spare you from my rusty 'just getting back in the blogging saddle' writing by keeping my thoughts short and to the point:

Holiday highs: Scottish sunshine (a major and unexpected plus); long coastal walks; rock-pooling; self-catering accommodation that surpassed expectations; dining al fresco; tennis tournaments; harbour cafes; evening strolls; leisurely bike runs; views to die for.  My ultimate high - and perhaps the one most closely associated with three generations holidaying together - was the flexibility of this new family arrangement.  The kids bonded with their grandmother.  My mum and I chatted about some of the important stuff we never normally get around to.  Hubby and I squeezed in small but invaluable pockets of time to ourselves without the children.  Having another adult around gave us extra wriggle room. If everyone didn't want to head out to the park, they didn't have to.  We simply broke off into our preferred clusters, then regrouped later with fresh enthusiasm.

Family holidays: Not all plain sailing

And, in the interests of balance...

Holiday lows: Fresh-on-the-scene tween strops; summer colds (all of us); nasty fall from tree rope swing (youngest); tennis induced twisted ankle (me); hayfever sufferers x two (hubby and youngest); two very similar females who both like to be in control (no need to explain who);  small people who, exhausted after the end of term, decided it was their divine right to do as little as possible to help out or tidy up after themselves.

So, would we do it all again? We sure would.  I think the highs definitely outweigh the lows.  To be fair, the weather and our accommodation ensured that we had the ideal conditions for family harmony.  That said, I think both children and adults learned valuable lessons during the week about compromise, biting one's tongue and mucking in.  I'm still plugging away with the kids on that last one though. Perhaps I'll have nailed it by the time they leave home?

Happy holidays, wherever you are and whatever you're up to. 

Friday, 20 June 2014

Holidaying across the generations

In my last post 'Here comes Summer...' I wrote about my attempts to get organised for the long summer break that lies ahead.

This time round, I'm homing in on the actual 'holiday' part of our six weeks off. It's going to be a holiday with a difference because it's not just us.  Having dipped our toe in the water with an extended family 'mini break' earlier this year, my mum has agreed to join us for our time away.

Since this situation is new to us - and since summer holidays are sacred for all of us - we've thought this through pretty carefully.  And I've listened intently to the advice of others who've already trodden this path.

Here's how we're hoping to achieve a successful summer together:

Start small - We're not all going to Hawaii for three weeks.  Instead we're driving a few hours down the road to the East Neuk of Fife.  And we're staying for a week.  Even if we did have the budget for a long-haul trip of a lifetime, I think our first shot at holidaying together should be reasonably short in duration with manageable travel times.

Happy husbands - She's my mum but she's Mr Average's mum-in-law.  And we all know that there's a difference.  I've checked, double-checked and checked again that he's happy with this arrangement. We also have a safety net in the form of a second week off afterwards for just the four of us. Because it's his holiday too and I know he really needs it. 

Consider costs - If he (or she) who pays the piper calls the tune, others may be resentful at having their holiday plans dictated to them.  Instead, divvy up the costs in a way that seems fair and no-one will feel beholden to anyone else.

Sensible space - The budget may not have stretched to Hawaii but we've made sure that it's stretched to renting a decent-sized property. This means that we won't all be living on top of one another.  I have high hopes that, even with children in tow, the adults will be able to recharge our batteries a little thanks to the comfortable space that we've organised.

Time apart - I'm lucky. My mum is one independent lady.  She excels at sussing out bus timetables, local markets and golf courses.  Because although she loves us all, she may not want to spend an entire day rock-pooling with the grandkids. And we get that, we really do.  (Between you and me, I think Mr Average may be slightly jealous.  Particularly when it comes to the golf courses.)

Not-so-great expectations - The children will whine. And be bad-mannered. My mum will be shocked. I will be stressed. It will all go horribly wrong.  STOP!!!! We've already had this conversation. The children will whine and be bad-mannered. My mum knows this.  She'll understand. And she won't blame me.  (I hope!)

Exit route - This is going to sound utterly pessimistic. I try to think of it as pragmatic instead. If the worst really does come to the worst - if it pours down rain every day and everyone argues constantly - we're relatively close to home.  We accept defeat, pack up and head north.  I desperately hope that this doesn't happen.  But I think there's a comfort in knowing that we have an exit route if need be.

Now we couldn't do that if we'd gone to Hawaii....

How do you handle holidaying across the generations? Any tips or hints? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Friday, 13 June 2014

Here comes Summer....But are you ready for it?

Here in my little corner of north-east Scotland, we're hurtling towards the school holidays at a breathtaking rate.

Some of my friends regard the school holidays with delight, others with despair.  I think I'm somewhere in the middle.  One thing I have learned over the years, however, is that pretending they're not just around the corner, or deciding to 'wing it', does not make for a stress-free six weeks.

And so we (groan) come to one of my familiar topics: Planning.  Notebooks at the ready people, I feel some lists coming on....

The escape from it all

I tend to start with the nice bit.  Block off that precious two weeks when the whole family is going to be together - hopefully somewhere different from home.  (Not that I don't love my home but a change of scene works wonders for all of us.) This year we're holidaying in the East Neuk of bonny Scotland and hoping fervently for the same sunshine that blessed us last year in Arran.

The tag team

The next thing I do is work out how Mr Average and myself can juggle the childcare during the remaining weeks of the holidays.  As he often works weekends with days off during the week - and I'm self-employed - there's a certain flexibility to our schedules that means we can cover most, but not all, of the childcare between us.  Which brings me to....

The supporting cast

It might be grandparents. It might be friends with whom you can exchange favours. Or it might be a formal childcare scheme.  Regardless, with just a few weeks to go until school's out for summer, these are the people you need to speak to now.  For my little family, it'll be a combination of all three.  (Our local out of school club summer holiday programme is sitting reproachfully on the top of my filing *system* as I type. I really, really need to fill that in. Today if possible.)

The fill-in fun

I'm a great believer that children need some free time to amuse themselves, however there is a balance to be struck. Summer holidays present a great opportunity for them to try new activities, catch up with friends and relatives and visit local places of interest (I love being a tourist in my own area!).

Here's what I'll be doing to prepare for some of the days that I'm in charge of the little 'uns but we're not officially 'away':

Grab a guide - My nearest city - Aberdeen - produces a wonderful guide to events for children and young people over the Summer. It includes sporting and creative ideas galore, including many free workshops and play sessions at art galleries and parks. Publications such as Raring2Go! magazine are usually stuffed with ideas and I try to follow useful Facebook pages too. (Local peeps should try Aberdeen for Kids and Aberdeen Inspired.  I've mentioned the Aberdeen for Kids page before but it's worth another shout-out here.)

Swap schedules - Now's the time for swapping mobile numbers with the parents of your kids' best friends - and for checking who's free for catch-ups when.  Of course you might not remember everyone's exact schedule but plant the seed now and others will feel comfortable contacting you when they're at a loose end too.

Whatever the weather - Here's where my control freak tendencies come into play.  Given our location, I usually draft up two lists (there's that word again) of potential activities - a wet weather list and a dry weather list. I like to think that I'll remember all those brilliant places that people have recommended to me.  In reality, if it's not written down, I probably won't.

Ask them - As in the kids.  It sounds risky but go ahead and ask them what they'd really like to do during the school holidays. You might just find they surprise you.  We spent a happy (if messy) half hour with an A3 sheet of paper and some coloured pens having a wee brainstorm about all the things the kids want to try - or repeat - but don't have much time for during the school term.  My eldest used the aforementioned Aberdeen guide for inspiration.  They both understand that we can't do everything but I have a clearer idea of their interests instead of choosing what I *think* they'd like to do.

And guess what? Turns out that mum doesn't always know best (shhhhh)...

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Friday, 6 June 2014

Something to believe in

In my last post 'Health, happiness and a remarkable teenager', I wrote about the importance of taking on board the incredibly wise and brave words of 19-year-old Steven Sutton who recently lost his battle with bowel cancer.

The sentiments discussed in this post have remained at the forefront of my mind over the past week.  In just over two weeks I will participate in my local Race for Life event for the third consecutive year. My daughter will run with me for the second year in a row.

Two years ago I ran with the fresh image of my father in a high dependency ward, having just had surgery to remove a cancerous growth. Last year I ran with hope for him - albeit a hope so fragile that I was scared to examine it too closely.  This year that glimmer of hope is in tatters. My very dear dad is no longer with us. But I continue to hope for all the others who are fighting this terrible disease.

My reasons for participating in Race for Life are therefore pretty obvious.  And I believe that most of us who have a cause that we are passionate about, and raise funds for, have a painful and personal story that accompanies it.

The verses below explain more than anything else why I'm committed to my cause.  Written in one of the many long dark sleepless nights following my father's death, they capture how I felt about my family's experience of suffering, illness and loss. I'm not sharing them to make other people sad.  And I'm not sharing them as a precursor to a fundraising plea.  I'm sharing them to urge you to all continue to fight for your cause.

It's easy to feel helpless in the face of some of the terrible diseases and conditions that our loved ones encounter.  But I firmly believe that our individual efforts really can make a huge collective difference.

As I line up to run on Sunday, 22 June I may no longer have the glimmer of hope for my own beloved parent. I do still have hope, though. In the supportive company of thousands of other women, many of whom will be fighting their own personal battles, it's impossible to feel anything less.

On a carefree Scottish summer day you tiptoed through our door
Back then we had no inkling of the pain that lay in store

You crept into our family and slowly took a hold
The horror of your presence would gradually unfold

When we knew that you’d arrived, a plan was put in place
It seemed that we would have to stare our worst fears in the face

The surgeons tried their very best to stop your grim assault
Despite their finest efforts, there was to be no halt

Then there followed treatment with more suffering on the side
Over time we realised that there was nowhere to hide

And as our options dwindled, your cruel strength grew and grew
As you callously invaded the loved one who we knew

He put up fierce resistance and fought on with all his might
But you were quite determined that you would win this fight

And so your ghastly presence was felt more and more each day
While we all looked on helplessly as you stole him away

Your mission is accomplished and our beloved one is gone
But our quest to find a cure for others goes on and on and on.

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Prose for Thought

Friday, 30 May 2014

Health, happiness and a remarkable teenager

For three weeks over the past month, I've been tussling with a cold/'flu bug.

Boy, did I let everyone around me know about it.  Whenever I'd an opportunity to have a little grumble or let out a dejected sniff, I used it. I even had a bit of a whinge online too (apologies to all loyal readers who were subjected to this). You could say that I'm not a particularly good invalid. If he gets round to reading this post, Mr Average will probably choke on his coffee and tell me that's the understatement of the year.

Fast forward to this week when I'm almost back to my - ahem - sprightly self.  I started to reintroduce the 30-minute lunchtime outing that I optimistically refer to as a run.  It was, as anticipated, rather painful after a three-week lapse but I enjoyed it in a masochistic type of way.  More than that, I felt grateful. Grateful to be outdoors, grateful that my energy levels were returning, grateful to be alive.

There are often times when I don't particularly want to drag myself outside to exercise.  But, once I'm puffing my way up that hill, there's a regular occurrence that always gives me a much-needed wake-up call.  While I'm out running, it's not infrequent for me to catch sight of others who no longer have the opportunity to run any more.  They may be elderly, or walking with the support of a stick.  They often give me, the red-faced panting one, a smile of encouragement. And it's then that it hits me how fortunate I am to be able-bodied and physically capable of enjoying sport and exercise.

Over the past few weeks, I think that many more people have had similar wake-up calls.  The news agenda has been awash with the remarkable story of the inspiring young man, Stephen Sutton.  

Even through my own fug of self-pity and Kleenex, I did not fail to notice the uplifting public response to this amazing youngster.  £4 million has now been raised for The Teenage Cancer Trust via Stephen's JustGiving page. His uplifting statement "I don't see the point in measuring life in terms of time any more. I'd rather measure life in terms of making a difference," has been shared and reported on worldwide.

As I write this, a two-day vigil to Stephen is underway, including a social media 'thunderclap' - a message posted simultaneously on Facebook and Twitter (#ThumbsUpForStephen).  His mum has asked people at 11am on Friday, 30th May to take a moment to give a thumbs up for Stephen:

"This could be via the thunderclap or you could give the thumbs up to a stranger, have a cup of tea and a slice of cake, think a positive thought, clap, cheer, or even perform a random act of kindness.

"Do something that makes you and others happy in Stephen's memory."

It's 11am on Friday, 30th May. I'm writing this blog post and raising my cup of tea to a teenager who has inspired a nation - and given many of us a much-needed sense of perspective.

I hope that Stephen's legacy is long-lasting and that we continue to be inspired to make the best use of our minds, our bodies and the opportunities that life presents us with.  We owe it to Stephen, we owe it to others and we owe it to ourselves.

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Thursday, 22 May 2014

Decisions, decisions: But how best to make them?

Big life decisions. We've all had to make them, whether they're to do with relationships, careers or lifestyle.

I'm not a particularly calm or swift decision-maker.  I really wish that I was.  It's an agonising process isn't it? Swaying back and forth between different scenarios, desperately trying to come down on the right side. The words 'quandary' and 'dilemma' spring to mind.  If I was more of an optimist, I would use the words 'choice' and 'opportunity' instead.  Because, in all fairness, big life decisions are usually about choices and opportunities even if the process of making them feels more like a quandary or a dilemma.

In the next few months, it's likely that I'll have to make a fairly important decision.  I'm not pushed for time (yet), however I've already started some of the processes that I'll need to go through to help me make it.

Pros and cons:  Yes, that old chestnut.  But, in all honesty, whenever a friend comes to me in this sort of situation, it's exactly the starting point I would suggest.  Take a clean page. Put a line down the middle. Write those pros and cons down.  Scrutinise the results in black and white.  If you're lucky the answer might be staring you in the face.  If not, the process of putting your thoughts down on paper will hopefully have nudged you a little further along the decision-making way.

Consult others:  Particularly those whom your decision might  affect. (Hint: Toddlers are not the most insightful of confidantes).  Has someone you know gone through a similar decision-making process? It might be useful to talk to them. Trusted, clear-thinking friends can also be immensely helpful.  Take their thoughts and ideas on board. But be prepared to take responsibility for the decision you eventually make - whether you follow their advice or not.  (My sister once apologised to me for advising me to take a job that didn't work out.  I was genuinely astonished. My decision. My fault. And valuable lessons were learned along the way.)  

Defining moments: Sometimes - and particularly if you're a procrastinator like me - it takes a trigger to make you realise where your head and heart lie.  A friend recently confided that it wasn't until her boss started making  plans for her at work that she knew she was ready for a change. Brilliant parenting blogger, Amy Ramson, confesses in a very honest post how she and her husband made their decision to have a third child. Her defining moment? An unplanned third pregnancy which ended in miscarriage made her feel that nature was telling her 'no' to a third child. The thought made her so miserable that she's turned it into a 'yes'. Happily, she's now pregnant again and expecting a new arrival soon.

Relax: This is rich coming from me as I am one of the least chilled-out people I know.  However, Amy Ramson has another piece of advice within her post that makes a lot of sense. Sometimes the best thing you can do is not to overthink the big decisions.  There's an ancient Buddhist saying:  "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear."  Perhaps when the mind is relaxed, answers will present themselves more easily too?  I like to go running to switch off when I'm stressed out, others might enjoy yoga or walking. Regardless of how you do it, a relaxed mind is surely a strong foundation for moving forward.

And on that happy note, I need to decide whether to flick the kettle on or pour myself a glass of red. Think I can just about handle that one...

How do you make big life decisions? Please share your strategies by leaving a comment below.

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Wednesday, 14 May 2014

How non-dieters shape up for summer

I've had the same conversation with several friends since the Easter holidays and May bank holiday weekend.

It goes like this.

"Did you have a good time?"

"Brilliant thanks but I've really overdone it.  Ate too much and dropped my usual exercise regime. I really need to get back into it before summer."

I'd like to add that I'm in exactly the same boat.  And, to a certain extent, I think that's what holidays are about.  It's time to relax (or to be a different kind of busy), time to try different kinds of foods and certainly not time to obsess about whether you've missed a spin class or exceeded your normal daily calorie allowance.

Nonetheless, no-one likes the feeling of sluggishness and too-tight clothes that accompany a little weight gain. I don't really do diets and I tend not to weigh myself as I can generally tell by the fit of my jeans how I'm doing.

How to tackle those few excess pounds without investing in a new wardrobe then? I try to follow some common-sense, easy-to-integrate lifestyle ideas, many of which I've learned from my mum. She's one of the few people I know who seems to achieve self-discipline without self-denial. And because she should probably have a frugal blog of her own, none of it involves signing up for a weight management club or gym membership (although by all means go for it if it works for you and you can afford it).

In no particular order, and bearing in mind that I have zero nutritional or fitness qualifications (!), here we go....

1. A little less - Note the emphasis on little. If you cut down your intake drastically, you'll be miserable and permanently hungry.  I'm talking about half a slice of toast instead of a whole one, no cream on your pudding and less Parmesan on your bowl of pasta.  Little changes over time = noticeable results.

2. A little more - Again, I'm talking minor changes.  This time I mean exercise. I know that some people cringe just at the thought of it, so I'm not dictating full-blown workouts here.  Baby steps people! Replace one of the daily school runs with a walk, stride round the block for ten minutes at lunchtime or force yourself to do twenty sit-ups each morning.  Whatever is manageable and sustainable for you.

3. Shift the balance - Think about your plate proportions.  Is it do-able to adjust the balance slightly so that there's more veg and less chicken smothered in sauce?

4. Treat swap - I'm guessing that most of you know about this one. Apparently we crave textures as much as flavours.  When I'm cutting back, I'll have a really nice low fat yogurt or sorbet instead of ice cream. It works for me because I genuinely enjoy them.  Why not experiment a little and see if you can find some acceptable treat substitutes?

5. No bans - While I'm suggesting treat swaps above, I try to never completely ban anything.  Perhaps it's a sign of my contrary personality but I simply end up craving it.  Everything in moderation. Bans are banned in my average kitchen.

6. Mint - Bit of a strange one this but it genuinely helps me out.  I often get to the end of my meal craving something sweet or feeling I'm owe something extra.  In reality I don't need it.  So, I make a deal with myself: I'll have a cup of peppermint tea and if I'm still hungry half an hour later, then I'll have something more.  I rarely ever need the extra.  I think this works because the mint tea is the psychological equivalent of brushing my teeth.  Also, I was full up in the first place.  (Don't like peppermint tea? Try a mint tic tac instead.)

7. Focus - We're all wired differently but for some people having a target event to work towards can really help them to focus on healthier choices.  Summer weddings and beach holidays instantly spring to mind.  For my own part, I have a gala dinner to attend next month. I am excited and terrified in equal measure; I'm delighted to be attending the event but terrified as the only suitable dress in my wardrobe is completely unforgiving...

Guess I better start practising what I preach then?!

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Shared on Works-For-Me-Wednesday (WFMW).