It’s the Final Countdown….

Once upon a time I was on a national TV quiz show filmed at Pinewood Studios and hosted by Robert Kilroy-Silk. I happened upon this bizarre situation completely by chance. At the time I was a masters student in Belfast and got a phonecall from a friend of my sister asking me if I was free to go along to a hotel in town for some ‘TV thing’. In her words they were ‘desperate’ for young people to go and, being the middle of a week-day when only hapless students and OAPs were available, far too many OAPs had turned up.

I had no idea what was expected of me as I sat in the waiting room surrounded by the blue rinse brigade but as the mutters of conversation started amongst the motley crew it became clear I was completely out of my depth. ‘So, how many shows have you done before?’ ‘Five’, said one, ‘Going for Gold’ was my favourite. ‘I’ve applied about 10 times’ said another. I felt like Charlie in The Chocolate Factory when his teacher asks him how many Wonka bars he has bought. ‘Just one’, I said. ‘This is my first, I mean’. I still didn’t know what the auditions were for – but I was sure that if it was ’Fifteen to One’ I wasn’t going to last two seconds in there. General knowledge and quiz shows are NOT my forte.

But as luck (pure luck, mind) would have it I ended up at Pinewood two weeks later to film ‘Shafted’ – a horrible new quiz concept by Endemol where people vote off their fellow players one by one and in the final decide if they want to shaft them for all the prize-money, or share the money and risk being shafted by them.

The whole day went past in a blur and I spent most of the time behind my podium saying Hail Marys and praying Robert wouldn’t ask me a question. Thankfully that only happened if you bet enough money, which I never did.

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Can you tell I’m praying?

My tactics paid off – by keeping my mouth shut and answering a mere two questions (passed to me by my fellow contestants Jane and Michelle) – I found myself in the final where I was asked if I wanted to share £103,000 with my fellow contestant Michelle or shaft her and go home with all of the money (of course, if she shafted me too we would both go home with nothing).

It was surreal. I had spent the entire experience in a daze of white noise and whispered prayers, where we were playing with monopoly money and all I wanted to do was get off the stage and go home. What a bizarre experience. So what did I do? I shared (of course) and Michelle bless her shared too. (Before you ask, I gave half of the money away, bought myself a car and spent the last of the rest on my wedding six years later).

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Michelle and I in the heated head-to-head final

Anyway, why am I telling you all this?

Because, I now find myself in a similar surreal and bizarre situation where my dear little blog, which is still a newborn in my eyes being barely 4 months old, is one of the 8 finalists in Fresh Voice! at the Britmums BiBs (Brilliance in Blogging) Awards ceremony. I hadn’t even heard of Britmums (shame on me, I know) until I was introduced by a friend to one of the Britmums Live! guest speakers in March. It all snowballed a bit from there and now the big day has arrived; the Britmums event of the year – their annual Conference and Awards weekend.

I don’t have a ticket to the full weekend, which sounds like a right riot of guest speakers from the blogosphere, advice and stories shared between bloggers and ultimately the chance for a lot of mums and dads to sneak off for a kids-free weekend in London fuelled by G&Ts and Tweets. I guess I didn’t think in my wildest imagination that my little blog would ever make it to the finals and so never even thought of buying a weekend ticket at the time. But I am going to don my best dress and head to the Awards ceremony tonight which is hosted by Katy Hill with only my iPhone and my free ticket to keep me company.

I wouldn’t miss it for the world – not because I think I have a chance in hell of winning (my blog seems very premature and under-nourished compared to the competition), but because I am so proud of ‘Baby Loves Porridge’ and am so grateful and thankful to all the wonderful Bloggettes and Bloggeurs who voted for it to get here.

So, prayers at the ready.

Chin-Chin!

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Yay! Me and my mama made it to the finals!

Click here for a great post on all 8 finalists in the Fresh Voice category.

The King of the World

My da, Frank, is over six foot three so most people call him Big Frank. To us he’s big in more ways than one- he has a big laugh, a big personality and a big dose of patience which is probably his greatest ‘daddy’ skill. Nothing much has really ever fazed him over the years – despite the constant efforts on the part of his four children to try his patience. I remember once annoying the hell out of him while he worked in his office trying to get an important job out on time. He turned to me sharply and said, ‘I’m going to give you a clip ’round the ear if you don’t stop!’ A ‘clip around the ear’ was colloquial talk for ‘a whack ’round the head’. I laughed in his face. There was no way in this world that my Da would punish me in any way, and I had absolutely no fear that I would be clipped around the ear or anywhere else. So, I brazenly went off to get a few hairclips and told him to put them on my ear. He just laughed. I finally got tired of annoying him and went off to annoy someone else. It was such a typical exchange with him – us trying to get him riled and Da refusing to rise.

I’ve always hero-worshipped my Da, as lots of girls probably do. It must be an instinctive thing as I see it happening even now between Maggie and Johnny – there’s a certain adoration in her eyes when her daddy when he comes home from work or turns up unexpectedly. For me, Da was someone I certainly looked up to with awe and admiration – he was the smartest man I knew (a rumour no doubt propagated by the man himself), the most respected and he had a wicked sense of fun that I hoped I’d inherited. But the hero-worshipping was probably inevitable from a man who had grand aspirations for us all; after all he called himself ‘the King of the World’ and his girls ‘the crème de la crème’.

Dad absolutely adores books and learning. He’s probably known as a bit of an intellectual in our neighbourhood which is funny considering he left school at sixteen. But he’s terribly clever and bookish and always seems to know at least a little bit of everything. Or at least that is the ruse he has been keeping up all these years. I guess if we really were going to fall for his ‘king of the world’ routine, we had to also believe he was probably the smartest man in the world too. When I was twelve our Irish language class were working through an exercise with the teacher, first translating the English word into Irish and then finding the Irish answer in a wordsearch. There was one word left that none of us – even the teacher – could figure out so we were sent off to find it out as homework. That evening I asked my Da (cue: cleverest man in the world) and of course he knew the answer. But he was also deeply aggrieved that the teacher didn’t know it so he sent me in the next day with instructions to tell her what he thought. So, never one to question my Da, and confident that he was ALWAYS right I stood up in class the next day and said to the teacher, ‘My daddy says that you’re stupid’. We both got into major trouble that night when mum found out. But as dad winked at me conspiratorially across the table I got the feeling that while he hadn’t really meant for me to say anything, he was definitely impressed by my nerve. But it probably struck him then that we were all taking this ‘king of the world’ title a bit too literally.

Happy Father’s Day, Big F.

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Big F with Maggie at Kew Gardens last Christmas

A Party Fit for a Queen

On Saturday Maggie Jane Mary Murray turned one and in honour of that and also in celebration of her ma and da having survived the last year in one piece as new parents, we had a party.

It was a Mad Hatter’s tea party and had been due to take place outdoors on Barnes Green. But the weather wasn’t forecast to be fit for an outdoors gathering so at the last moment we changed plans and hosted the tea party in the house.

We laid the long tables with colourful plates and decorated it with flowers and sweetie jars. Bottles of pink and white lemonade invited people to ‘Drink Me’, while a plate of jam tarts looked so appetising they would have tempted a passing Knave of Hearts to steal a few. Sweetie jars, cake pops and breadsticks with chocolate spread were just some of the naughty food served at this royal tea party, while sandwich plates overflowed with savoury treats. The ‘Eat Me’ stickers were hardly necessary, as the food looked fit for a King.
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The piece de resistance was Maggie’s birthday cake, baked in the shape of a Mad Hatter’s hat, 3 tiers high and decorated with all the fantastic Alice in Wonderland characters. It was a masterpiece created by our talented friend Carmen as a birthday present and excelled all our expectations. All future cake orders contact me and I’ll pass them on to Carmen’s Cakes!

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At 1pm the party began with the birthday girl dressed as the little Queen of Hearts in her red tutu. Her friend the White Rabbit – never one to be on time – kept looking at her watch as if she were late for some important party elsewhere. Two very glamourous Cheshire cats arrived and the birthday girl’s mama – an older and wiser Queen of Hearts – poured large glasses of Prosecco and Pimms from a teapot for the adult guests.

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The sun came out in the afternoon so the kiddies wrecked about in ball pool and sand pit outside and filled themselves full of cookies and juice. Then while the babas slept in the late afternoon the sing-song began.

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It was another Queen’s birthday recently too, but we had not planned to celebrate it with the same vigour. In fact, as most of my neighbours and friends in London were planning Jubilee street parties and trips to watch the festivities, Maggie and I headed home to Norn Iron. Bean Boutique – our little fashion stall – was due to take part in the ‘Frock around the Clock’ vintage fair in Bangor over the Jubilee Bank Holiday. For the last few weeks Mairead has been sourcing a beautiful range of vintage dresses and the collection for the fair was simply stunning. I was excited about going home for a longer time than usual but a little disappointed to be missing out on the neighbourly festivities while John was staying behind and joining our friend Barry at his Jubilee party in Chiswick. Imagine their surprise as they watched the Jubilee coverage on TV. For, not only was I NOT missing the celebrations, myself and Mairead were on national TV as part of Huw Edwards’ four and a half hour Jubilee special on BBC1.

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Back at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the festivities spilled out onto Railway Side where we had our own street party with a difference, one week after the official day. Maggie happily sauntered up and down our little lane with her new birthday pram while the rest of the party soaked up the last of the evening sun.

What a celebration! God knows what we are going to do for the next birthday. I may start planning now….

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A Happy Queen on her Happy Birthday

A Mother’s Guilt is Never Done

Before I went to university at the age of 18 I had never eaten an avocado nor tasted pesto but they are now two of my favourite foods. Before I went to piano lessons I had never heard of ‘muscle memory’, but I saw it in action when I played my scales almost perfectly despite not having practised for over 15 years. Before I had Maggie, I had never heard of ‘Mother’s guilt’, but Hell do I know it and live it now. It is one of the less desirable side affects of giving birth, along with saggy boobs and a dodgy pelvic floor and, in my case at least, it permeates every aspect of being a mother.

Now that I am back to work full-time I’m feeling that sickening sensation that all working mothers must endure – guilty that I’m not spending enough time with my precious duck. It definitely helps to know that she is being cared for like a lamb and that she is so happy to be with her childminder, but I do think that the days are too long and a wave of guilt hits me like a brick every day around 3 o’clock. Maggie is what the Baby Whisperer would call a ‘spirited’ child, constantly on a high energy drive especially when she is with other children. Her childminder Louise told me today that she has not yet – in the five weeks of minding her – seen her cry, complain or have a girly moan. Never. She rules the roost, sits in her high chair not eating very much but squealing with delight, happily goes off on her adventures exploring the garden or a new toy or some empty cereal box she has found and looks with dismay when some of the other babies get upset. But we know that what goes up must come down and Maggie’s slump hits as soon as I pick her up from childcare and often she cries with exhaustion all the way home. It’s as if she can’t relax properly or have a good cry until she sees me. I’m not sure how I feel about my new role as Maggie’s ‘downer’ but I know I feel guilty as hell when she’s left in childcare for 10 hours. Jeezus, I’m generally a happy chappy but even I would struggle to keep up such a cheery disposition for such a prolonged period.

But even before I went back to work the guilt was there. I spent the last few months of maternity feeling guilty that I was hanging out with Maggie way too much and she was missing out on the company of others. I also felt guilty that my maternity pay wasn’t adding a significant amount to the family pot and that, even though I was at home all day, the house was still in a mess and the hand washing was never done.

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For months I felt guilty that Maggie wasn’t enjoying the culinary delights that her peers were, and that my love of bland foods and lack of appreciation for anything exotic (see my comment above about avocado and pesto for goodness sake) were the cause. Then the guilt about feeding her mostly bread and porridge because that was all she would eat! I did reason with myself: ‘So what if she doesn’t eat her five a day unless it’s in an Ella’s Kitchen pouch. I never had anything more exotic than peas and carrots when I was growing up!’ I was also so grateful for my regular trips home to my sister and her three kids just to get some perspective on things and realise that doing your best for your precious bundles is about as much as you can do.

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There have been lots of other examples. A friend recently casually remarked how ‘energetic’ Maggie was and then laughed at how funny it was that I was always singing to her. ‘What? Do I?’ I replied, guilt sweeping over me like a rash as I jumped to the insane conclusion that my singing was leading to overstimulation (the worst thing EVER according to the bloody books) and her high energy levels. I’ve felt guilty about not spending enough quality time with Johnny and being wrrrecked and grumpy in the evenings when all energy has been spent. And you can guess how I felt when Maggie caught chicken pox when she was only 9 months old. Or when she knocked her chin against the bed and cut her lip while I watched her climb out of bed. Jeezus!

My sister and her littlest girl Nancy were meant to come over to see us this weekend for Maggie’s 1st birthday, but her middle girl Ella has tonsillitis. Mairead was already feeling the dreaded Mother’s Guilt about leaving her two at home while she came to London, but that guilt is just magnified ten-fold when your baba is sick. After all, all you want when you are sick is your mama. Hell, I caught some sort of bug this week and I found myself whimpering for mummy when I was feeling weak and emotional. I have told Mairead in no uncertain terms that she is not to come, much as she would love to. This guilt thing is bad enough without adding to it intentionally!

The worst thing is that there is no conclusion to this piece – this all-pervading and all-too-frequent feeling of guilt (a mixture of fear and hope?) is here to stay. I’m sure women have been feeling it since time began and that it is a normal feeling for every mother. Society puts a lot of pressure on a woman to do what’s right for the family but I think this pressure often comes from ourselves. The key is to be able to acknowledge the guilt but then let go of it. It’s easier said than done but after all, we know that a happy mummy = happy baby. So, grab the coffee or the glass of wine or do whatever it is that makes you feel relaxed and…. breathe!

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Maggie driving her truck at The Macs last weekend, completely oblivious to her ma’s insane guilt trips

The good, the bad and the ugly truth about going back to work

4 weeks back at work and this is what I have learned:

1. It has been an absolute joy being able to go to the loo whenever I feel like I need to go, and with the door closed. I’m sure I have done some kidney damage by holding it in for hours at a time for the last 13 months.

2. I have not sat down in one spot for so many hours in such a long time. I was in the car in traffic on Tuesday morning for over three hours and today I sat hunched over a computer updating PowerPoint slides for eight hours. My arse is killing me.

3. I’ve been quite surprised that colleagues are full of compliments about how svelte I look. This is probably because the last time they saw me I resembled a beached whale.

4. Not much has changed in the grand picture. Funhouse Dawn still works cheerily at the panini counter in the canteen and Scary Rob still saunters around the building delivering parcels. But there does seem to be a wave of colleagues leaving the business and I can’t quite work out why.

5. My heart starts to feel heavy around four o’clock when suddenly the panic sets in and you fear that you won’t get to leave the office in time and you might get stuck in traffic and then your precious babe will be left sitting on the steps of the nursery, waiting. The Queen was in Richmond this week and because of the traffic I sat in my car about 2 miles from Maggie’s childminder for 50 minutes. I was practically shaking by the time I picked her up.

6. My entire outlook on life and work and the work-life balance has changed. While I expecting Maggie I applied for a post within Coke working at the Olympics. I couldn’t see how I could ever give up the opportunity to work at the Games; after all, I’d been talking and dreaming about the Olympics ever since my Da brought home a Misha bear from the 1980 Games in Moscow and promised me he would take me some day. We never did make it, but this time I thought I could take him. The job involved a 4-week secondment from normal work with two weeks’ training and two weeks at the Games. I would be based at Eton Dorney, home of the rowing and canoeing events, and would spend 12 hours a day, 6 days a week working at the venue, stocking fridges full of Coca-Cola and Powerade. At night we would all gather at the Team Hotel for a debrief and a beer. It sounded so wonderful and fantastic and frivolous and fun 13 months ago when I applied. Now it just sounded frivolous. One week back at work and I pulled out and felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. The work-life balance definitely tips in favour of life.

7. Lunchtimes have definitely improved. I savour my Pret-a-Manger falafel wrap with tahini sauce and wash it down with a hot decaf cappuccino or a wee cup of tea. No more left-over gravy mash and cold discarded broccoli florets for me.

8. Mornings are MANIC! On Monday Maggie woke up at 5.15am and we still struggled to get out the door at 7.45am. On Tuesday I left the house to go to my first very important meeting with my new customer and my car wouldn’t start. I thought ‘To Hell, I’ll abandon it’ and phoned a taxi. But because the battery had drained the car wouldn’t lock. I had to cancel the taxi and miss the meeting. On Wednesday I left to go to a meeting and realised that Maggie had been playing with my car keys that morning and they were now in her pram at the childminders 1.5miles away. I always have the sinking feeling, “Didn’t I forget something…?” – and I usually have. On Thursday I forgot my security pass and had to go through the rigmarole at the security desk where I had to convince them that I was an employee, making me late for a meeting – again. On Friday I was able to work from home – hoorah! – but got up early to prep for a call from my customer which was due at 8.30am so couldn’t help Johnny with the morning routine. The call didn’t come until 6pm. Aaagh!

9. I had a complete blow-out at a work ‘do’ on my first week back and I remembered how much fun work can be and how great my colleagues are. I absolutely took full advantage of the free drinks, free taxi, free food and free hotel room. I think the free bottle of Veuve Clicquot was probably a bad idea though.

10. I regret going back to work full-time. Weekends just aren’t enough.

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Bring on the weekend – Maggie at Battersea Park Zoo last weekend

10 signs that it’s time to go back to work

I’m going back to work in 7 days’ time. This day week. After a prolonged, protracted, extended 13 months maternity leave I am finally getting back to the grindstone. I know it’s the right thing to do, both for Maggie’s social needs and my financial ones, but I’m still nearly sick at the thought.

However, I have been weighing it up carefully in my head (as Librans do) and have come to the conclusion that it is, indeed, time to go back to work. Here are the reasons why.

1. I need to break the cycle of Mummy Time = Wine Time
I am aware that I am washing a crystal wine glass along with the baby bottles most nights. Because I don’t do Monday mornings, I think I am permanently on my holidays and therefore act accordingly. Just because I never know what day it is, doesn’t mean I should always assume it’s Friday or nearly Friday. My liver needs the break.

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2. I have too much time on my hands for nonsensical conversations
Like when I phoned customer service at Sainsbury’s to complain about the way the Ham Slicer Person treated me at the Delicatessen. I explained to the nice young gentleman on the phone that normally his staff are the epitome of friendliness and that I was a seasoned customer, being in his store at least twice a week and, no, I didn’t want this to go any further, I was just making him aware of how rude this person was to me and how I hoped it would never happen again. I put down the phone and thought, ‘I need to go back to work’.

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3. I don’t have enough time on my hands, full stop
I met a mummy friend last week who went back to work in January when her baby was seven months old and we discussed my impending return to work. She assured me that she feels more rested now that she is back to full-time employment than when she was a full-time carer of her duck. I can see how that works. I stagger to bed far too late every night after a very active, intense, wonderful day changing, cleaning her teeth, dressing, playing, singing, reading, cooking, cleaning, feeding, bathing and- now Maggie is up on her feet- running after her. I have never been this active at work. No sooner have I gotten her to sleep than it’s time to make the dinner, eat it (washed down with a glass of vino of course), clean up and make up the baby bottles for the morning. Sometimes I fit in the ironing, or a quick jog around the houses, but not very often. I have an item on my to-do list that is over six months old, I kid you not. I’m quite looking forward to sitting on my arse for a bit.

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4. I struggle to make a decision
I am generally not very good at making decisions anyway, as my star sign dictates. But I now deliberate every decision I make on the basis that I am still learning on the job and don’t know all the answers. Hence I have been known to take up to 2 hours debating what to have for lunch, what to make Maggie for lunch, what to have for tea, what to make Maggie for tea. I find it hard to decide whether to go to the swings, the shops, the library, Miss Hannah’s music class, the deer park or the duck pond. Sometimes we just hop on the bus and see where it takes us.

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5. I can’t stop eating cake
The good news is that, since being on maternity leave, I now host a mean afternoon tea complete with homemade banana cake, caramel shortbread or chocolate brownies and served on a vintage-style tea set. The bad news is that I’m having afternoon tea with one of my stay-at-home mummy friends or actor friends (both of whom are free during the day) at least three times a week, and so over the course of the last 13 months I’ve eaten my body weight in cream buns and chocolate brownies.
My cholesterol needs the break.

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6. I miss my handbag
I didn’t think I would but, after such a long time using Maggie’s nappy bag as my handbag, I’ve come to miss having a bag which has nice, girly things inside like perfume and lippy. I’ll have to stick a packet of baby wipes and a spare muslin into my handbag though as I’d feel naked without them now.

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7. I’m addicted to Tea
One of the implications of hosting and attending so many afternoon tea parties or simply meeting folks for a cuppa at Costa, is that I am now absolutely addicted to the stuff. I have always loved tea, but now if I have a busy morning and don’t have a cup by 2pm I get all twitchy and moody so I suspect I may have a bit of an addiction. And while I’m not looking forward to cutting down the quantity of tea I consume, I am looking forward to actually drinking a cup while it is still hot.

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8. I’m on the Baby Weaning Diet
Ever since we have started on the difficult journey to baby weaning, my lunches have consisted of anything Maggie has discarded. Considering what a picky eater she is, that can be anything from leftover vegetable soup, cauliflower and broccolli mush, Farleys rusk, rice cake with Philly cheese to fish pie or lasagne. Today I ate a bowl of discarded peas and half a fish finger for lunch. I’m looking forward to the lunchtime joys of Pret a Manger once again.

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9. ‘If you’re happy and you know it’ might stop playing in my head
Or it might not. I think it is doomed to play on repeat in my head forever. Oh well, it will make for an interesting conversation with my boss if I start humming it subconsciously during a meeting.

10. I’ll enjoy the break
One hour’s lunch break? A commute to work with no distractions, no baby in tow, just ‘me time’ and Radio 2? The chance to read the Family section of Saturday’s Guardian in one go, without it taking all week (and it’s only 8 pages long). Ok, so I’ll most likely spend my lunch hour doing the shopping, but hell what a luxury. I’ll have that thanks.

………………..xx………………..

Still feeling a bit sick about it all. Being with Maggie is like walking through a rainbow or drinking a cup of tea in the sun – sheer delight. I am going to miss my little girl like mad.

Nearly 6 days now and counting…..

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25 Things about Me and My Girl

1 When I was younger I wanted to be an artist. My dad always laughs at this because, at the time, I had said I wanted to be ‘a’ artist. I guess it is quite ironic that I didn’t become a artist, but went to study English instead.

2. I don’t get bored. I once wrote that answer in one of those ‘Things you didn’t know about me’ quizzes, and John was quite taken aback. Because it was only then that he realized that it was true, I don’t ever get bored. I don’t believe in boredom. There are so many things to do if you have free time – think, read a short story, write a short story, learn to play the piano, learn to speak Italian, or French, have a singing lesson, sleep, go for a run in your new gutties, join an am-dram society, go to a car-boot sale, try out a new ‘Flat Belly’ diet, write a blog, bake a cheesecake with disastrous effects, plan a birthday surprise, learn to juggle, tidy the house, do some hand washing, have a glass of wine, play the guitar, phone a friend. Of course you can also have a baby and you’ll never ever be bored again.

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3. One of the greatest pleasures in my life is Tea. There is sometimes nothing more comforting in the world than a good cup of tea. It makes me smile and often makes my toes curl.

4. I have Raynaud’s disease. It sounds serious, but it’s not, it’s just a disease that affects the blood flow to my fingers when it is cold and makes them go bright white as if they are dead. I often worried that it is a sign that I will develop arthritis in my hands when I am older, because then I couldn’t play the piano or write my best seller. But apparently the two things aren’t linked, which is good. It is more likely to cause gangrene.

5. My life changed when my niece Molly was born. Honestly, I realised then that I had so much love to give little people and I have adored and been inspired by her and her sisters ever since. It also prepared me in the best possible way for having a little bean of my own. All of a sudden bringing a child into the world was not as overwhelming as it perhaps once felt. As the Beatles profoundly said, All you Need is Love.

6. I would like to have four children, mostly because I am from a family of four and I couldn’t bear to think of my life without my siblings. My best friends in the world are my siblings, without doubt. Years ago I said that my four children would be called Maggie, Jack, Katie and Frank, and now I have my real life Maggie who is, without doubt, the love of my life. She makes me laugh every day and already I can see the fun, energetic, mischievous little bean that she will become.

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7. The thing that makes me sadder than ever is cruelty to children. And I don’t necessarily mean abuse and neglect which is the worst possible thing, but even just unkindness and uncaring. I see it all the time – on the bus, on the street – and it makes my heart bleed. If I could, I would adopt every child who is in need of a hug, a kind word, a bit of attention. Alternatively, I do think of retraining one day and becoming a teacher. I’d love to become the Miss Honey to all those Matildas in need.

8. We thought it would be pretty easy to have Maggie, but in the end we waited for her for three years. I tried to stay relaxed about the whole thing, but towards the end I got really fecked off. My sister’s friend lent me a blessed medal of St Gerard Majella and I do believe he came through for me in the end. That along with the vigils and candles that were lit for me by my darling aunties and my dear dear Granny Campbell who sadly passed away three weeks before Maggie was born. Already I can see that Maggie has inherited Granny’s mischievous smile and sense of humour. Only time will tell if she is as good at storytelling.

9. I have a thing about pillows. If I had to bring 3 luxury items into the jungle they would be a good pillow, earplugs and a supply of teabags. I have been lucky enough to stay in some of the most amazing hotels in London but often the nights are ruined by a fat, hard pillow, or a really soft one. Goldilocks knew what she was talking about – it has to be just right.

10. At work I am ‘commendable’ but not ‘outstanding’. I can cope with that. When I was 10 days overdue with Maggie they told me I had an ‘unfavourable’ cervix. I didn’t cope too well with that.

11. I do a lot of talking in my head. That includes arguments too. I can have the most productive argument with John, put across all my points, listen to his, rationalize with him and come to a merry conclusion, all in my head. It is really quite satisfactory because it means we rarely argue. But it frustrates the life out of John, as he is a talker.

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12. I love being part of my am-dram societies; it is as close as I will get to being a real actor, and half the time it is pretty close particularly when I get to perform in great theatres. Some people don’t get the am-dram thing, but it’s not that bizarre really. You just have to be a real show-off or very shy and I’m not very shy. I guess I’d love to be on the West End stage some day. My secret ambition is to make my début at 60 playing Mrs Schumacher or Aunt Eller. Or perhaps I will just live my ambition vicariously through Fra.

13. One of the favourite stories I like to tell is how I once stabbed my ear while picking mushrooms. Not only is it a great story, but it’s the ‘what if’ element of it that intrigues. What if the midge had flown into my eye, would I have stabbed it? Probably.

14. I have a phobia about flying things which fly near me and I put it down to two events. 1. The Mushroom incident. 2. The swarm of ladybirds myself and Mairead encountered on a sandy path to the beach in France. Now, I have to cover my ears if I hear a buzzing sound.

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15. I run a little clothing and accessories business called ‘Bean Boutique’ with my sister Mairead. She’s the brains behind it really – she’s always had a thing for fashion and can root out a piece of fashion gold anywhere. We source beautiful, pretty, sparkly things like dresses, hairbands and children’s shoes, and now we are venturing into proper vintage-wear, mostly because we love it ourselves! It’s such a gorgeous little hobby. It’s like dressing up for grown ups.

16. One of the most bizarre experiences of my life is definitely winning £51,500 on a national TV quiz show hosted by Robert Kilroy-Silk. I am not sure if people believe me when I say that I spent the whole time saying Hail Mary’s, praying that he wouldn’t ask me a question, and wondering when I was going to wake out of this dream where people were gambling with monopoly money. Before you ask, I gave half away and spent the last of the rest on my wedding.

17. I have always hero-worshipped my Da, but ever since I’ve had Maggie I appreciate my Mum in a whole new different light. Mummies are amazing and rule the world. Still a daddy’s girl, though.

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18. I think it is a shame that people give up their dreams so easily. Like me, really. I have worked for Coca-Cola, one of the biggest multinational corporations, all my working life, despite having completed an English degree, and once having read Naomi Klein’s No Logo, and declaring that I would never fall foul of the corporate rat race. My attempts at writing, my new-found love of blogging and my am-dram keep me from really thinking that I copped out. I have so much pride for my friends who have gone after their dream – my Johnny, our Nan, Mairead, Seanie, Barry, Twiglet, Burgess & Ed and, of course, our Fra.

19. Moving to London was quite a rash decision and I had no intention of staying here as long as we have. But I don’t regret it one bit. We are having the most wonderful time in London. The only thing I hate about it is the fact that Mairead and her girls aren’t here. And now Burgess has left – again. But Fra and Nan live down the road, Sean and Barry are here, we have made such great friends in Barnes and is it only £80 away from Belfast. I am secretly glad that Sam and Rosie are moving back home and Twig and Cormac are planning it next summer, so we won’t feel so bereft when we finally move back. But I really want Maggie to go to school back home, to grow up with her cousins and her grandparents, and I am looking forward to us building our little family life in Ireland.

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20. Sometimes it feels as if I live on Wisteria Lane. Today I popped next door to borrow tinfoil to cook some salmon, yesterday my neighbour’s little girl just wandered in to play, I say hello to everyone who passes and we often stand outside and watch the trains go by or chat to the folks working on the allotments opposite. It’s wonderful! I just hope we don’t find a dead body buried in the back garden someday. No, wait, that was Brookside not Desperate Housewives. Phew.

21. I have an item of clothing in every colour in my wardrobe.

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22. I have married my best friend. He makes me a better person. And Fiesole, Italy 2008 with 110 of our nearest and dearest by our sides will go down in the history books as one of the best times ever.

23. I guess I am a bit of a square. I once started a one-man anti-drugs campaign, and painted posters that I wanted to hang up on the school notice-boards. They had really naff slogans like, ‘Sometimes it’s hard to decide which one is the dope’, ‘Have you ever wondered why it’s called dope?’ and ‘leave the cows to have the grass’. I have become a lot more tolerant and I hope better at copy-writing, since.

24. One of my strangest memories from my time in London will be when I was in a taxi which hit an 18-year old boy called David. As the taxi screeched to a halt, I looked behind and saw him being hit again. I instinctively ran over to him and brought him to my car, and took him home to Wimbledon. In the car I found out that he had jumped out in front of both cars as he wanted to die, but he was just really drunk, and had changed his mind by the time we got him home. He hugged me and asked if I was his guardian angel. I loved that. I sometimes wonder what ever happened to David from Wimbledon, but, sure, if I saw him again I probably wouldn’t recognize him.

25. I have a thing about smells. I think that because I have very poor eyesight, my sense of smell is over-compensating. There are some seriously minging smells in the world – bins, egg, smelly cheese, bad body odour, cigarette smoke – and I can sniff out a smell at forty paces. I once said to Sean that a cheese and wine party was my idea of hell. But I have since changed my mind, because I love wine. And I’ve got used to the smell of manure after years of living in the country, but I still couldn’t marry a farmer. Jeezus.

To Pray or To Pay

I met my old boss last week for a colleague’s leaving drinks at The Marylebone Pub. He’s originally from Norn Iron, married to a girl from Belfast and has settled in London with his four kids. Before long we were sharing notes about childcare, accents and primary schools.

We have recently moved to Barnes, one of the so-called ‘Nappy Valley’ areas of London. That is, an area where bugaboos outnumber automobiles and other modes of transport, and where that oft-quoted entity known as ‘yummy mummy’ resides. We didn’t actually move here for its Nappy Valley credentials, but now we are here we can see the huge advantages for kids – the facilities, the quality of schools and childcare, the general baby-friendliness of it all. The downside of living in Nappy Valley areas, however, is that there is generally tough competition for school admissions, particularly faith schools it seems.

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Some parents apparently give serious thought to which primary school their child will go to before they have even given birth. Many primary (and secondary) schools are oversubscribed, particularly in cities, and obviously this issue is even more compounded in London’s ‘nappy valley’ areas where there are just so many children in the area who want to get into the high achieving local school. In fact, the admissions criteria is usually so strict that even if your child goes to a nursery linked to the school of your choice their place isn’t necessarily guaranteed. This is why parents-in-the-know plan ahead and find out what they need to do for their child to get a coveted place in a ‘good school’, long before they need to apply, which is in the autumn of the year when they will turn four.

I have only started to appreciate the complexity of the whole school admission malarkey now that I live in Barnes and talk to other mums-in-the-know about it. And so the conversation went with my old boss, who has been through the school admissions nightmare four times (apparently it doesn’t even get easier with each one, as having a sibling at the school isn’t one of the admission criteria). ‘So, do you go to mass?’ he asks me. ‘Mass? Well, of course I do. In fact, I’ve just joined the folk group’. He was thrilled. ‘Brilliant. Brilliant’, he says. ‘And at what age did Maggie get baptised?’ ‘She was actually only 4 weeks old, ’cause John’s uncle is a priest and–’. He stops me there. ‘Perfect’. No need for further explanation. It was evidently a good thing that I was a mass-goer, and even better that I had proof through her early christening.

He explained: some over-subscribed faith schools have a points-based entry system, which gives points for early baptisms and parents who help in church. Nothing wrong with the principle of course, so long as the enthusiasm of parishioners is motivated by faith rather than the fate of a school place. I read about an oversubscribed Catholic school in Croydon, South London which was told to change its admissions policy by England’s admissions watchdog, as they argued it was discriminatory. In their investigation they were told that some parents were deliberately carrying out church activities in order to gain extra points. They heard evidence of one parish where there were 100 children on the waiting list to be altar servers!

So, after all this effort, what happens if your child still doesn’t get a place? The general consensus is that you pay for them to be privately educated at a high achieving public school. ‘So’, I said to my old boss somewhat incredulously, ‘you pray or you pay, is that it?’ He smiled. Now I was getting it. ‘Precisely’.

The Old Woman who lived in a shoe

I’m in a financial predicament. Ironically this is in part due to the incredible maternity package offered by my employer which has thus far enabled me to take eleven months off and be considering another two, much of which time has been at full pay. (Apparently the maternity policy was written by a woman and signed off by a woman, but that’s beside the point). The predicament had occurred because, despite affording me deliciously long maternity leave, my employer has failed to set me up on the right tax code. I now face a hefty £3,000 bill from HMRC for underpaid tax and the prospect of going back to work one month earlier than planned in order to pay it.

Not a major issue, you’d think, considering how long I have enjoyed being off so far. But with my tax code issues finally rectified, I will be returning to work to a lower wage (albeit my proper wage!) Coupled with the high cost of childcare – a benefit of living in one of London’s ‘Nappy Valley’ areas – it is looking very financially dodgy indeed. No need for a degree in economics to work out the Profit and Loss calculation on this one: Lower Wage minus (Hefty Childcare + High Rent) = much less money than budgeted for Life In General.

My maternity package is so good, it would make more sense to get pregnant again and get on maternity leave quick! I would almost consider it if it wasn’t so….wrong. I do hope to have a big family some day, but surely this shouldn’t be the motivation behind it. Can you picture it- ‘Mummy, why do I have so many brothers and sisters?’ ‘Maggie, darling, your father and I just couldn’t afford it any other way’.

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