Tuesday, 18 November 2014

When your son's friends have left him

Teen (now fourteen) had friendship issues when he moved up to senior school. But, to be honest, I expected it. This was the boy who, aged three, had pushed his friend into an easel at nursery after a minor tiff, giving her a black eye.  As punishment, he was forced to sit in the Principal's office for hours.

I learnt two things that day:

1. This boy takes no prisoners, and
2. Never, EVER, send your pre-schooler to a nursery which is up its own arse enough to have a 'Principal', never mind a 'Principal's Office'.

Teen went on to form friendships at Primary school, but he was always regarded as a bit 'on the edge'. Always a bit sidelined. And so, when he moved to Secondary School, it was no surprise that he suffered unkindness.

He was lonely. But because he was used to it, he dealt with it (with some help from the lovely pastoral care people at the school). And now, aged fourteen, he's happy. He has friends - admittedly, I've never seen any of them, but I can hear them coming over the Xbox loud and clear - and my spies tell me that he is never alone in the playground.

But when Tween started at senior school, I thought it would be entirely a different kettle of fish. Tween has always been sociable, fairly sporty, with a wide group of friends. And initially, it was fine; he arrived with two good friends from Primary school, and they went round together, stuck to each other like glue.

These two other boys are super sporty, and it was inevitable that Tween - a bit bulky and slow - would be left behind. Literally. They are moving on to other friends and this, coupled with some mild bullying from a couple of other children, has left him struggling.

It is heartbreaking. Last week, he was retching on the way to school. He would smile at me and tell me everything was ok, with tears rolling down his face. He begged me not to tell the school, not wanting to be a 'grass'. Night times are spent talking, going round in circles, stroking his hair, cuddling him, telling him that these things take time to iron out.

This is the time when single parenting is hard. I bang on about how I happy I am now that I am single, but at times likes these, I would give anything to have another adult to lean on. My ex is being as useful as a paper bag in a storm and, to be fair, he would have been just the same had we still been married. But at the moment, I feel sorry for my son, and sorry for myself. It is a tough time.

Having reassured Tween that I wouldn't approach the school, I have told them, of course. They have been reassuring and have put a subtle plan in place, but ultimately, Tween has to put feelers out, be brave, and make a new set of friends. We all know how scary this can be, even as adults, so it will take time.

In the meantime, I will be there with the sick bucket, the tissues, the cuddles, the teddy. Hot chocolates.

Because that is what parenting means.


This post is linked up to....
And then the fun began...

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

10 tips on how to write a blog (and what I can learn from my own ramblings)

After a year of thinking 'Google + - WTF is that?' I actually managed to post something today, and wonder of wonders! - got a comment back. The lady in question is a single mum, like me, and is looking to set up a blog, but is unsure where to start. She needs pointers.

Now, I am no expert and believe me, as I typed the title into this post, I did it with tongue firmly stuck in cheek and a healthy dollop of irony. My blog looks like my house; a bit tatty and dirty, half drunk bottles of gin hidden behind chairs. Think charity shop rather than Boden. I'm certainly not up with the latest trends. But I continue to write and some people pop in and visit from time to time, so I thought - you know what? Maybe I have picked up some knowledge along the way that might be useful to others.

Well, here it is. See what you think.

1. What will you write about? Why are you writing?

Think about it. Are you using this as a personal outlet? Just somewhere to spout, offload? Or do you want to really attract readers? Or both? Focus in on one category - your USP, if you like - and stick with it. 

2. Will you be yourself? Or anonymous?

This is important. If you're anonymous (like me) you are free to say a lot more - but the worry of being 'outed' is constant. You also can't promote your blog to your family and friends, which is a MASSIVE disadvantage. You have to be a good secret-keeper.

I was found out a few months into my writing. I had stupidly sent someone an email from my blog account, and my recipient had of course gone off and Googled the Fuck out of my email address. I was absolutely gutted; I had to shut down the blog, and start again with a whole new identity.

So writing anonymously has its difficulties; however, if you write as yourself, there will be no-go areas, so you may find yourself constrained and frustrated.

Choose carefully, Obi-Wan.

3. Think of a name for your blog

Consider this carefully, because it will be yours forevermore. There will be no switching when you get bored of it (unless you close the whole blog down); it will become part of you.

It sounds odd. But it really will.

4. Sign up with a blogging platform

In the UK, Blogger and WordPress are the most popular choices. Mooch around both and see which one feels best for you. Both have pros and cons - Blogger is owned by Google and I was recently informed that a Blogger site will do better for SEO (Search Engine Optimisation - how people find you), but WordPress seems funkier and more flexible. They are both pretty good - and are free!

5. Think about whether you want to 'self host' 

This means buying your own domain name and paying an amount for an external organisation to host it for you. You don't have to make this decision at the start though; I signed up with Blogger initially (and my URL was www.thesecretdivorcee.blogspot.com) but after a few months it seemed cleaner to have my current URL. My lovely new hosting company - www.swbroadband.co.uk - did the switcheroo for me and the passage was painless.

6. Post regularly, but always have something write about

Don't feel like you have to post every day. You may start off with plenty of material but after three weeks - unless you are Katie Hopkins, who seems never to be short of a word or two - you'll be as dry as the Gobi Desert. Make sure you post once a week if you can, and include links (great for SEO) and images (for reader interest). If you include other people's photos, also reference them. Don't include photos of other people's children unless you have express permission to do so.

7. Check your writing

Read it through for typos and to make sure it makes sense. At times I've posted late at night what I thought was a MAGNIFICENT piece of writing on some subjectorother, only to wake up and realise what a terrible pile of worthless and mis-typed crap it was. If you're writing late at night, pause before posting. Read it again in the morning. And THEN hit the Publish button.

8. Be sociable

Link up to Twitter (first), Facebook (second), then Instagram, Google + and anything else you have time for. Interact as much as possible. Respond to anyone who leaves blog comments. Join appropriate forums (for example, the Mumsnet Bloggers Network, who have been super duper lovely to me). You won't have time to do everything you want to - so find your balance and do what you can. Important: don't kick yourself for not having enough time. Just do what you can.

NB I have only half managed to use Twitter and have only just discovered Google +. I kick myself all the time. 

If you have the chance, go to a blogging event such as Blogfest or Britmums Live. If you're shy like me, it's shockingly hard to actually physically meet people, but it's THE BEST way to network, learn about blogging and really feel like you're part of a vibrant blogging community.

9. Stats, making money, and the whole commercial aspect

I check my stats constantly. TRY NOT TO. Also, try not ask other bloggers about their stats, because it will only depress you. Much better to motor on, promoting your posts through social media and just hope that they strike a chord with your audience. My most popular post ever is Ten Thing I Wish I'd Known Before Leaving My Husband. I can't tell you why; it's a mystery to me. I think it was picked up by Mumsnet as their Blog of the Day and perhaps I was just lucky that lots of women were considering jumping ship at that particular time.

As you gather readers, you may find that you are approached by commercial organisations to review products. Only do it if it fits with your blog; don't feel pressurised to review a zimmer frame, for example, if you're writing a baby blog. (Unless they're offering loads of money - then sell your soul in an instant and squeeze it in where you can.)

You can install Google Adsense (Google Ads) yourself (a walkthough here), which will start making money, depending on how many click throughs or impressions you get. I was initially rejected by Google because they thought I was a porn site (obviously) but I wasn't incensed because I had been approached by another organisation with a commercial offer. Six months later, with many contracts signed and the code installed, I am still waiting for this organisation to pull their finger out and actually get me on board. 

Moral: write because you love to write. Not purely to make money.

10. Write for others

Do guest blogs. Host linkys. Become guest writers on other sites. There is SO MUCH you can do to get your name recognised - if you have the time, motivation, energy. 

Tip: if you work and have a family, like me, you'll go through ups and downs. Sometimes you'll feel like your blog is going swimmingly, you're being asked to write this and review that, and the stats are up...but equally there will be times when ideas are thin and your energy is low. Recognise that this is natural and just part of the normal ebb and flow; and you'll be back at full throttle given time.

Good luck!

Oh, and because I said you should include images for reader interest, here is a nice but completely irrelevant photo of some cows that I took recently, entirely for your pleasure.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Blogfest 2014

A wonderful day packed with ideas, tips and tricks for both rookie and seasoned bloggers.

Blimey. I was cacking my pants about Blogfest (see previous post). Finding my way to (and through) London, walking into a building filled with capable women, and then having to introduce myself to a proportion of them without doing something unintentionally embarrassing - it was almost too much to bear.

Nonetheless I, like all the other attendees, was up with the lark on Saturday morning and wended my way to the glorious Kings Cross station. Cue gratuitous photo of its quite incredible vaulted ceiling and remembrance tribute.

Kings Place, home of Blogfest for the day, was pretty impressive too. If I'm honest, anywhere with a long escalator impresses me. Also nice loos and leather footstools. Kings Place had all three.

Half way down the long escalator, when all these people came into sharp focus, I had a moment where I wanted to hot foot it back up again. Any ropey old confidence that I had sewn together that morning had suddenly left me, and I felt a stinging dampness under my armpits.

Managing not to trip off the escalator, I zoned in on the coffee, dusted myself off, and tentatively approached some unsuspecting women. Made by Maggie; Beau Twinsthe Scientific Parent, Stopping at Two and Tiny Footsteps - all of these clever people had beautiful Moo business cards, and what did I have? A smelly old rucksack and a biro that didn't work.

But they were all lovely. I mean - really lovely. Lots of people were obviously meeting up with old friends. But others were rookies like me, looking to meet and network and... well, swap stories. Eventually I did stalk - sorry, finally meet - my Twitter buddies, Michelle Davis and Samantha P; both glorious on Twitter, but even better in technicolour real life.

Highlights for me were hearing the inspiring Tara Cain talking about how she goes about making money from her blog (also Alicia Navarro from Skimlinks was funny - must go find out more about that), and Paul Armstrong's Social Media talk was IN-VAL-U-BLE. But top of the plops for me has to be the combination of Suzanne Moore, Camila Batmanghelidjh and Francesa Martinez's Think Bomb session. Camila's warm, wonderful, from-the-bowels speaking, with a lyrical essence, contrasted so well with Suzanne's earthy, witty, slightly loony thoughts, and then to hear Francesca speak about self-acceptance was - well, it was a brilliant combination of speakers.

Other highlights for me: Nick Hornby, Lisa Jarmin, Lucy Porter. Gin. The Fleet Street Fox. Scones. Good toilets. Seeing that Justine off the telly.

Gin again.

Well done Mumsnet. I shall be back again next year. With my business cards. And a bit more confidence.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

I'm cacking my pants about Blogfest

I'm cacking my pants about Blogfest
I'm thinking I'll hide in the loo
I'll be a tiny bit sick in the toilet
And eat my crisps in there too.

I'm cacking my pants about Blogfest
I'm just a country girl from the west
What if I trip over my laces
Or spill coffee all down my string vest?

God, I'm cacking my pants about Blogfest
What if I spit or break wind?
Best not eat bread beforehand
And make sure I'm heavily pre-ginned.

But I really shouldn't worry about Blogfest
Cos I know some already from Tweets
There's I am Jean Hatchet for onesers
She's one I can't wait to meet(s).

And Learner Mother, she's lovely
So I think all will be ok
And if all else fails to settle me
I know there'll be gin at the end of the day.

Looking forward to #Blogfest - see you there!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Half term has broken me

It is now Wednesday evening. I have had a full three days to recover from half term. And yet I am still broken.

At the end of each school holiday, I feel a little bit like a fag end that's been ground into the earth by my children's heels. But this one - this one was worse.

Much worse.

Now that I'm a single parent, I play the competitive parenting game. This means that MY school holidays are going to be the most fun, the most varied, the most educational. And the most bloody tiring.

For this last week, I'd planned two trips away. (Yes, I know - already you're saying, "what WERE you thinking?" Answer: I don't know. I must have been drunk.) One was to go up to the Peak District with my Dad, brother and his family and my uncles. A super duper extended family holiday giving my boys a chance to meet up with their cousins and everyone else to swap family jokes and generally have a fabulous time being jolly.

Sadly, I hadn't factored in the shitty 'inn with rooms' that I was staying in with my kids; the sour faced landlady, the disintegrating bed, the non-existent breakfast. I also hadn't quite realised that the eye trouble my dad was having caused him to drive on the wrong side of the road for most of the time. It is hard telling your dad that he is about to kill you, your children, and probably anyone else on the road whilst keeping a level voice and trying desperately to mask your unconscious shaking.

It is also hard seeing your dad as an elderly man for the first time. Driving wasn't his only problem; he also had trouble with the family walk of 4 miles, wanting to stop half way for a wee and a cup of tea, and almost falling over through his wobbly balance on the downhill stretches.

Then the alarming drive back to dad's, which we survived, and the tiring drive back home, only to fall into bed and get up the next day, still exhausted, and do a full day's work.

The following day, last Saturday, marked Adventure Number Two: a trip to London. The kids sat behind me on the train and argued for the entire one hour 45 minutes. I had to take their games away from them, like toddlers. When we arrived at Paddington, Teen suddenly became awe-struck with the station and the trains, and requested 'time out' to go on every single platform to inspect every single sodding train.

And this was just the beginning.

We tubed it to London Bridge, our plan being to see the poppies at Tower Bridge before settling into our hotel. This is what we were met with:

After much shuffling and sniffing other people's armpits, we eventually saw them - and they were breath-taking.

By this time, the boys' moaning was hitting somewhere between a 7 and 8 on the Moanster Scale, so we sloped off and checked into our Premier Inn room.

I am in love with Premier Inns. The beds are good, the rooms are clean, the service is great. And when we got there on Saturday, I practically stuffed £3 into their pockets to let me have WiFi for 24 hours - because kids with WiFi equals at least an hour of rest for me.

That night, we went to the theatre. We loved it, but the journey home involved hitting Leicester Square tube at 11pm on a Saturday night, after which, Tween said, "Mummy, I am never coming to London again."

Yet another night sharing a room with two boys who are bigger, louder, and smellier (just) than me. Followed by a day of heavy rucksack madness, tramping around the London Dungeon and other wonders, all the time being slowly pulled backwards by the weight of my overnight clobber.

The disappearance of Krispy Kreme from Paddington did nothing to cheer us up. And by the time we were on the train home, my back was broken. I'm sure it was.

I think I was delirious by the time we reached our home town, and I only remember pieces of our twenty minute wait for the taxi -although I do remember kissing the taxi driver when he finally arrived. He was rather taken aback.

I can't tell you how glad I was to see the boys go back to school on Monday. Work isn't easy, but at least the arguments there are pretty civil, punches aren't thrown and people at least try not to fart loudly. I've had to take proper big horse pills to try and dull the pain in my shoulders, but tomorrow is my day off and, apart from surfacing briefly to shoo the boys out of the door, I will be mostly lying down.

Doing bugger all.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

When to introduce the boyfriend to your children

Golly gosh and bugger me backwards. I've only gone a bagged myself a man. He's got all his own teeth, a full head of hair, takes his shoes off upon entering and brings flowers. Ye....es, he is still married (separated though) and no....o he doesn't have his own place and ye....es he probably is on the rebound from a horrendous split but NONETHELESS - he's mine.

I met him off the internetascope. First meeting: crowded bar, my town. Second meeting, crowded pub, my town. Third date: gig, his town.

Fourth: my house.

Fifth: my house.

You'll have noticed that he comes to me a lot. And that's because going to his town, an hour away, is almost impossible. In fact, when you've got children, dating is almost impossible full stop.

My kids, teen and tween, are on the cusp of being ok to be left for a couple of hours. Which I did for the first and second date. But the dates were on school nights, and so on both occasions, I pulled my Cinderella act at 9pm and skiddadled back to my offspring, making sure that they hadn't pulled each others' arms off or set the house on fire. I couldn't really relax on the date and what's worse - I couldn't drink.

You might ask why I didn't get a babysitter. Well, I did for date 3, which turned out to be a mammoth ask, as I was away from 7 til 12 (on a school night). I was so grateful to my friend that I practically offered to give her my soul in recompense for my dirty-stoppoutedness.

So here's the problem. I can't sensibly leave my children on their own. And yet I can't afford to pay for babysitters, and I don't have the ability to repay friends who babysit for me.

So how on earth are you supposed to date a man?

The practical answer is: bring him to your home. Which brings me to the extremely long-winded point of this post.

When should you introduce your boyfriend to your children?

I've done my research, and it backs up what my own common sense is saying: don't introduce him until you're sure. You're potentially setting a bomb off in your children's' lives; be sure first. Be sure.

And yet. How the eff are you supposed to keep leaving your children to go on dates in the first place? Unless, of course, you have extremely understanding parents living nearby, OR have a limitless wallet, AND are ok with leaving your children in the evenings on a fairly regular basis. (I, I've discovered, am not.)

The only solution is, once you've vetted him for possible axe-murderer tendencies, to bring him back home. Children and all.

Now. I know that red flashing lights have been set off. All the advice is to take months to decide that this is THE ONE - and then do the introductions. And I know that I may well be wrong, and this may come and bite me in the arse in ten years. I know all this. But my logic is thus:

1. My kids know I am dating. They are old enough to understand what this means - ie, that I am meeting men in order to 'try them out'. To see if he and I hit it off.
2. However, they are FULLY ASSURED that I love them first, they come first, I think of them first, that basically THEY WIN when it comes to my life.
3. My date doesn't sleep over when they're in the house.
4. Also, until the kids are in bed, the door where I am (with the date) and them (the kids) is always open. I want them to know that we are just talking.
5. I don't want them to feel uncomfortable in their own home, and am positioning this man as a 'friend' - at least for now.

And having said all of that, I have so far brought home only two men in two years. It is hard to find a man that seems to suit; it is hard to arrange to go out on a date. By the time these mountains have been climbed, you realise that the fact you've managed to meet anybody at all that you vaguely like is a bleedin miracle.

But as I'm writing this, I'm wondering if I'm just being selfish and actually, what I'm doing is putting my own needs above the needs of my children. Thing is, I know that I need to be careful. And I strongly feel that my personal life shouldn't be put on hold until my children have flown the nest. That a strategy of honesty, reassurance and love is actually ok.

Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The uphill struggle to parents' evening

There's this hill. It's over a mile long. I cycle down it to get to work (9 minutes). I cycle up it to get home (an awful lot longer).

Over the summer, I told myself that, now my youngest was no longer at Primary school and could walk to his new school, I didn't need to drive. What I needed to do was to get on my bike and tackle that effing hill.

And so, since the beginning of September, I've ping-ponged up and down said hill almost every day. Over the weeks, I've learned many things about the downhill run, including how to avoid the pot holes at speed; that skirts really can fly up in your face if you're going fast enough; and that, if you have your brakes on all the time, you will soon hear the shrieking of metal on metal, smell burning rubber and witness an occasional naked flame (which is not good).

It's the uphill part though, that has caused me most heartache. Literally. It's made my heart. Ache.

My first issue was: heat. September seemed to be full of blisteringly hot late afternoons, and as I laboured up the hill in my Granny cog gear, I would attempt to strip off everything I possibly could, without being arrested for Mum Nudity. I would go so slowly that sometimes, I would fall off. Literally. People walking - with sticks - would overtake me. My heart, which already has a hole in, would occasionally shout "WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?" and tell me to stop. Which I did. But after a short rest, I'd carry on with the hill torture and battle my way home, usually pushing the sodding bike for the remainder of the hideous journey.

And when I got home, I'd immediately (in this order): drink a pint of water, say hello to my children, take a paracetamol, have a cold shower and lie down. For an hour.

Six weeks later and things have got a bit better. I still hate the thought of the long journey home, but I can do the hill in one sitting now, and this week, I actually overtook a walker. Although, to be fair, he might have been walking the other way.

So this brings me to tonight's shenanigans. It was Parents' Evening, and I'd ridiculously booked my slots far too early, giving myself 30 minutes to not only cycle up the bleedin hill but to make sure I was in some sort of human form when presenting myself as a parent to my kids' tutors.

I had to put pressure on myself. Today was the day when I was going up a gear.

But about twenty seconds after I'd gone up one gear, three things happened: 1. my heart appeared to beating so hard that it filled my whole chest cavity, and my throat, and may have been popping out of my mouth, 2. my breathing became so loud that it smothered the clamour of all passing traffic, including a tour bus, and 3. someone had rushed in and fixed invisible lead weights to my thighs, which were burning like buggery.

By this point, it was raining hard. My eyes were swimming, and my nose was dripping. There were various other 'ing' words that I really don't want to talk about. Every car that passed me gave me an additional soaking and I started to scream, "THANK YOU!" at the top of my voice to each one. The final straw came as a Range Rover overtook me and then turned left in front of me, into the gates of a local private school. "THANK YOU, YOU FUCKER!" I screamed as I wobbled around the bulky boot of the car - then realised that the driver had heard me and so cycled off at top speed (2 mph).

I eventually made it to the top, and checked my watch. Eight minutes before my appointment; my house was a minute's cycle away, and the school five minutes from there. I couldn't go straight to the school because, to be honest, I looked like a banshee and smelt like a cowshed. I needed to get home, wash, brush and go.

The race was on.

My road is two-way but narrow. Normally I wait like a good girl for traffic coming towards me but today, I was in full 'chicken-playing' mode. I was stopping for no one. So precisely 56 seconds after reaching the top of the hill, I was home.

There is no easy way to say this, but essentially, I gave myself a good mopping. Impulse was used to cover any latent smells. My helmet was taken off, a brush pulled through my hair, and then my helmet was back on. A quick 'hello, goodbye' to my eldest and I was off again.

You know when you thought it was raining hard, and then it really starts to rain hard, and you suddenly think, "Oh....NOW it's wet." That.

The road was flooded. Water was getting in the top of my boots. I couldn't look up because it felt like God was sticking crochet hooks in my eyes.

So after five minutes of blind cycling, I arrived at the school. I locked up my bike, and took off my helmet.

And as I walked in, I caught sight of myself in a the window. I looked like a cross between a tramp, a bonfire Guy, and a parking attendant (high viz, see).

And with this knowledge, I strode into the school hall, dripping, hand outstretched towards my tween's apparently terrified tutor...