In collaboration with Boots
Despite my best intentions, I am generally a last minute shopper at Christmas time. Yes, I’ve been known to hit the shops and even the supermarket one year on Christmas Eve and I can’t tell you how dissatisfying I find doing things that way. Buying for the sake of buying sucks any spirit that’s meant to reside the experience of gifting.
Not only that, but it’s a surefire way to spend more money than I intend and to wind up going with less ethical options than I would otherwise. Every year I have been getting better at planning ahead and simplifying Christmas and this year, with us hosting for the first time, I’m dead set on sorting out all our gifts well in advance to open up headspace for other things.
Thinking about gifts at a more leisurely pace has given me time to think about what we really want to do in terms of gifts. I’m in the process of decluttering at the moment and so I’m keenly aware that we are often overwhelmed by stuff, so much of it unused. So I’m focusing this year on ensuring that the gifts we give are either genuinely useful or focus on experiences.
Boots invited me to check out their Christmas gifts range and I was impressed to find options there that fit our criteria for this year and that I would have never expected to find there. While there are the bath and beauty gift sets one expects (though a few surprised me with high quality items like hats or gloves included), they also offer electronics, books and even experiences. We were invited to choose products to review and I was sorely tempted by vouchers for an archery taster or a spa card.
In the end, I chose a recipe book for Laurence, Deliciously Ella With Friends. It fits the bill as something useful and an experience facilitator. Laurence loves to cook and, when he’s around, he does most of the cooking. He’s actually not at all familiar with Deliciously Ella (I know, where has he been?!) but I know he’s going to get on with her recipes famously as he’s both wheat and dairy intolerant and the recipes in the book avoid both. They’re also vegan and avoid refined sugar which fits well with the way we mostly eat. They’re also simple to follow and, as the name insists, delicious! OK, this may actually be a gift for me too as I get to enjoy the results. A gift that keeps giving.
I also chose a Harry Potter notebook for Talitha with a wand-shaped pen from the Christmas gifts for her section. She’s fallen head over heels for the world of Hogwarts, having read the first book, a gift for her birthday. We also listened to it on audiobook because she kept referring to it and I realised I didn’t at all remember it. Oh, it’s so much deeper and more thrilling than I remember. This is an interest I’ll happily feed. She’s also into journalling in a big way so a notebook certainly ticks the useful and experience boxes.
Have any of you made a start on your Christmas shopping? Are you thinking along similar lines in terms of the kinds of gifts you’re going for this year?
This post is in conjunction with Boots but all thoughts are my own
Last month Lucy from Lulastic and the Hippyshake documented her daily menstrual cycle experiences on her Instagram and encouraged others to do the same. I’ve charted my cycle for heading towards a decade now (minus a few years period-free thanks to breastfeeding), mainly for natural family planning. But I began to notice trends in the way I felt and the things I thought about, accompanying the physical changes I was recording month after month.
When my period returned after Talitha, I didn’t give it much thought. I was completely focused on having another baby. All my period signalled to me was that conceiving wasn’t happening as quickly as I’d like. After Ophelia, I began to notice it more, probably because I wasn’t sure we’d have another baby. I began then to deeply long for a sisterhood of women around me and I felt like the two were connected somehow, wanting to explore more of this important part of what it meant to be me and wanting to connect with others who were on a similar journey.
I’d read somewhere about journalling about the experiences of your menstrual cycle and began to write a word or two at the top of my daily planner at the end of the day, to reflect what my dominant mood had been that day. I didn’t take it further than that but even the monosyllabic records began to show up when my memory was at its worst and when I was at my most articulate, when I felt anxious and when I craved company. So I was intrigued to see what would happen if I began to dwell on it that bit longer, in full-on captions on my Instagram.
For me, the public nature of the project was important in helping to shift some of the shame I still carry around menstruation and, by extension, around being a woman. At first, I felt a bit odd about male friends and relatives who follow me knowing that I was on my period. Recently in conversation with my friend Kath who’s written about what she’s uncovering about her menstrual cycle on her blog The Long Walk Home, I realised that Instagramming my last menstrual cycle has convinced me that the negativity we’ve developed around our menstrual cycles is both a form of internalised misogyny and a direct result of not living in a world that values women’s experiences enough to accommodate and make use of the changes we go through month to month.
It was also interesting to look at what how other people described their days tagged #mcaday1, 6, 12, 23, etc. Were the variations because of other things going on in my life or were they down to personality differences? Did I have fewer days of wanting to be surrounded by people because I tend towards introversion? I’m aware that the high energy, high mood phase of my cycle is shorter than it potentially could be and I’ve wondered if that’s because I often don’t give my body and mind the things they need in terms of nourishment, sleep and processing, which could be affecting the length of my menstrual “summer”.
At the same time, I’ve realised that, on the whole, I have a much more pleasurable experience of my menstrual cycle since spending more time outdoors in recent years and committing to opening up more, initiating more friendships and putting more effort into sustaining older friendships. There is an idea that having intimate friendships can actually regularise of menstrual cycles and make them shorter and I wonder if this has been happening for me. Being outside, especially in the woods or by the water, gives me open spaces to absorb any frenetic energy. These are also places to rest when I feel spent. And sunshine is no doubt chemically improving my overall health with fresh air and gentle movement offering some pain relief too. I hadn’t spotted that I’ve been enjoying my menstrual cycle more until writing about it each day on Instagram.
And while I was aware of the things I normally worry about in my premenstrual phase, committing to observing it like this brought me face to face with things I couldn’t ignore. Like what I really believe about myself and the people around me. Like the background noise I’m able to mute some days but not others. Like what I really, actually want as opposed to what I think I should want.
I feel like I want to spend a lot more time exploring my menstrual cycle. Possibly I’m tuned into it because I’m moving on from the all-encompassing baby phase. Or maybe it’s just that I’m in my 30s and I’m now in a place where I want to know myself and I’m no longer afraid of what I’ll find. There’s also a spiritual dimension of this quest for me, knowing that my cycling must reflect something of God’s image and that it quite likely has the potential to help me find where I’m meant to go.
You may remember Talitha tried one of the activities developed by the Year of Engineering’s Holiday Makers in the summer. They’re back again with more engineering-inspired activities for children aged 7-16 over the October half term. My kids always light up when they hear anything about engineering because one of their aunts is an engineer but the reality in this country is that only 12% of those working in engineering are women and only 8% come from ethnic minority backgrounds. The Holiday Makers are aiming to help families get making and inventing to discover what engineers do and find out why the field is a really exciting one to get into.
So we were asked to try out one of the Halloween-themed activities that The Holiday Makers have designed for October half term. The one we gave a go was called “Frankensnakes” and the idea was to make gummy snakes “come alive” using a simple chemical reaction like the ones engineers use to protect our environment and generate energy. Check out our three-minute video of the engineering-inspired Halloween trick.
We used baking soda and wine vinegar to make the gummy worms wriggle, which was both mesmerising to watch and raised questions about all of the different things involved in engineering. We found that the first set of worms we used didn’t move that much, despite being cut lengthways to make them lighter so we tried the experiment a second time with a smaller set and found it exciting to see what a difference it made. The chemical reaction forms carbon dioxide gas bubbles which float to the surface, pulling the worms with them and making them wriggle but clearly, factors like the size of the worms can affect the results. You can find out instructions for this activity and more about the science behind it on The Holiday Makers hub.
There’s so much fun stuff on The Holiday Makers website to get kids age 7-16 thinking about engineering and feed their curiosity As a parent of a child who loves to keep track of her progress, I found their Holiday journal a fun touch. You colour in sections to show how many of the activities and events you’ve been to and there’s another page at the back where you can write about your discoveries. The idea is that you can take it back to your class to share what you’ve been up to with them, or, in Talitha’s case, we can store in a folder for our own memories as she’s home educated.
The website also has lots of ideas for events across the country to help kids take a closer look at engineering. We love the look of the Fireworks and Fairgrounds event at Winchester Science Centre. With bonfire night coming up, it’s the perfect time to ask questions like “what gives fireworks their different colours?” and “why do they go whizz and bang?” There’s a lot on over the next couple of weeks so I highly recommend you take a look and find an engineering-inspired event near you.
For now, we’re just focused on working our way through the rest of The Holiday Makers Halloween themed activities like making green slime and causing ghastly ghosts to dance.
About a year ago I reviewed beautiful Storytime magazine and gushed about it because we genuinely loved it. In fact, our whole family has wound up recommending it to loads of friends. We’ve even bought copies as gifts. I was getting ready to buy a subscription before the one I was given for last year’s review ended when the magazine got in touch again and asked if I’d be interested in running a catch up. Since we’ve kept every single copy we received this year? Well, yes, I would.
Stories are at the heart of the way we’ve chosen to home educate. We see our children learn through stories whether through play, observing the natural world, conversation or books. We all learn through stories. So a magazine bringing high quality fiction and poetry through our door every month is totally welcome. We’re as excited to read the latest issue as the kids are, welcoming known authors like J.M. Barrie or Oscar Wilde alongside new stories. Storytime magazine carefully strikes the balance between historical and modern, mythological and relatable, humorous and intriguing, drawing from every part of the globe.
When Talitha was six and Ophelia three, Talitha would read the whole magazine to herself then ask me to read aloud the ones that were more complex. Ophelia needed me to go for the shorter stories. At first, Talitha shunned the poems, insisting that they were boring, though she liked the illustrations. When I began to read those aloud, she was surprised by how much more sense they made. One of the things I love about Storytime magazine is that it brings a wider range of poetry into our home than we’d likely have come across otherwise, accessible because of the wonderful illustrations.
Nowadays, Ophelia wants the whole magazine read to her, from start to finish and then again. Whenever a new issue arrives, that’s bedtime, morning basket and poetry tea time sorted for a good while. And neither Laurence nor I mind. The stories are well curated and genuinely enjoyable to read. Talitha can take on all the stories comfortably now, though she still prefers that I read the poems and will often join us if I’m reading aloud to the younger two. Oh and, yes, Delilah is getting in on the action now at two. The stories are too complex for her but she delights in the pictures – the poems and rhymes are pretty much picture books for her.
Both the older two are now into the activities that run alongside many of the stories and offer a chance to jump deeper at the back of the magazine. The competitions to win prizes such as books have peaked Talitha’s interest. At seven she’s in the zone for that sort of thing. And they’re both likely to go through the back issues on any given day. Since they’re printed on quality paper, we’ve been able (and have wanted) to keep all the issues so far.
Get 10% off the subscription price here.
Read my first review of Storytime Magazine here.
I received a year’s subscription to Storytime magazine for the purposes of this review.
September would have seen Ophelia start reception had she been in school. Talitha would have started Year 3. Our fourth year homeschooling, we’re continuing to join the gentle flow of me offering activities and them telling me what they’d like to do (or just going off and doing it). Here are a few highlights from the month just gone by. I must start writing these down as we go along as I struggle to remember!
First up, when we read about Qin Shi Huang in Story of the World, China’s first emperor, Talitha gasped when she heard that he burned books he considered dangerous. She even said: “I’m horrified! I love books!” Never mind all the people he executed… 😉 We’ve just finished up the Julius Caesar chapters, which she’d been looking forward to. She especially wanted to hear about Cleopatra. We’re also listening to Our Island Story on audiobook in the car and both kids were thrilled to spot Stonehenge on our drive back to Cornwall from London this weekend as they’d just listened to the Merlin legend.
A few people have asked me what a reception year looks like in our home. I did a lot more planned activities with Talitha but this second time around I’m a lot more relaxed. Ophelia mostly spends her home days dressing up, dancing, drawing and requesting picture books. She’ll drift in and out of what Talitha’s doing if she’s interested and I’m often surprised by how much she takes in. Lately, she drops very random facts about Space and ancient Rome just to keep us on our toes. I can’t say what I’d do differently if she were a first child. Probably just go out more to play with other children.
Speaking of which, we’ve met up with friends a lot but our two favourite days out were trips to the Flicka Foundation donkey sanctuary, a home education workshop at Falmouth Art Gallery and the incredibly quirky Moseley toy museum. Look at all the Meccano!
They are loving doing Mystery Science together. They watch the videos and do the experiments together and Talitha reads aloud any bits that need reading to Ophelia. They often come away with their own questions – which reminds me that we need to do some reading about floating soon. Lots of questions about floating came up when we were reading about astronauts moving in space.
We finally finished Swallows and Amazons! It took us rather a long time to read because we just didn’t reach for it in the summer months. The upside of that was that Ophelia was actually following it in the end. When we started it, I think it was quite hefty for her but she took a sail with Laurence the other day and announced that she was “able seaman Titty”. We much enjoyed the book on the whole but I’m looking forward to starting something new. I might suggest to the kids we choose an audiobook as I feel like I’m doing a bit too much reading aloud these days (and I like being read to too!).
Oh and I loved reading Anna Hibiscus to Ophelia. I bought it for Talitha, who’s now read a few of them, on the recommendation of an online friend whose son loved it but I finally took the opportunity to read it aloud and Ophelia kept asking for more and more. I think for now we’ll keep doing separate chapter books if we can.
We’ve been following Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Lessons when Ophelia feels like it. Sometimes she loves it but sometimes she’s not interested. Talitha pointed out that where we’re at is actually way below Ophelia’s reading level and started writing sounds and simple words for her to read. So I’m going to see whether she wants to skip ahead, keep playing Teach Your Monster to Read (an off and on favourite) or continue as she is because she’s clearly learning to read, albeit in a completely different pattern to her big sister.
We signed up for the British Red Cross’ #milesforrefugees, setting ourselves the challenge of 108 miles. This was pretty unrealistic as we can’t really walk to places in the countryside, it needs to be a set walk which couldn’t always happen with needing to make the most of the boat and people getting ill. I realise I should have just mapped the miles spent walking around the places we were at as we probably did do quite a bit of walking! Anyway, we changed to the more achievable goal of 22 miles (a lesson in itself!) and got there in the end, raising £100 and learning about the charity’s work and refugee experiences along the way.
Talitha has started doing a few bits on Easy Peasy Homeschool, which I wasn’t sure about before as it’s free then decided to try it at least for maths – as it’s free. It’s turned out to be quite a hit as she can navigate it independently. She asks to do the language arts, maths and Bible lessons most days and is really enjoying it.
Violin practice continues to structure our mornings. It’s been a bit of a slog recently so I suggested Talitha look for a song tutorial on YouTube. Learning to play Happy Birthday was just the treat she needed to help her keep going. I’m finding it all a bit much at the moment, though. It helps to remember that she loves it when she gets going but I sometimes wish we weren’t doing the Suzuki method so I could just leave her to it.
In terms of “extra curricular” activities we’ve switched everything to after school as daytime commitments were making our weeks feel too busy. We are at capacity, though, and it’ll likely be a case of swapping if they decided to take on something else. They’re both doing dance and swimming and Talitha does Beavers and violin.
And not to be left out, I’m enjoying seeing two-year-old Delilah’s fascination with the names of colours and count with great certainty: “2, 6, 8!”
I probably err on the side of talking about our homeschooling life as if there’s more rhythm and flow than frustration, and most of the time that’s true. But I’ve reached the end of a couple of weeks where I’ve really struggled to find peace.
The kids are fine. They’re learning lots and generally content with their days but I have not been well. Usually, I would choose radio silence until I’m in a happier place, feeling more in control but actually, I think we learn a lot from difficult days. This time has allowed me to reflect on how I regain my balance when home education doesn’t allow a lot of time or space.
When I’m feeling negative, it’s not only difficult to get things done (the current state of my house attests to this) but I perpetuate that cycle by not noticing all that’s gone right in the day. Yes we wound up eating eggs on toast for supper but we read some great books earlier. OK, so we didn’t do that art project I’ve been promising the kids all week but we got to swimming lessons on time.
Sometimes the achievements are relatively small: a conversation about something a child is interested in or making it out to see friends or even just clearing the table so we can eat supper. I need to get back into journalling so I can remember that good stuff is happening – all the time.
That said, there are definitely things that make our lives easier when we’re back in the habit of doing them. Having a plan for getting stuff done in the morning is one of them. The kids and I worked out a routine for them which is on their wall. It means that I can ask them to get on with their routine and not have to remember whether four people have brushed their teeth, etc, every morning.
The idea is also to get more challenging tasks done in the morning. So my seven-year-old practices her violin then as we both recognise that we have more energy to enjoy it when we’re not overtired and it gets pushed to the end of the day otherwise.
Ideally, I try to get a load of laundry on and do a few small chores before we get stuck into the day’s activities. I just don’t have the motivation when the kids have gone to bed. On my superhero days I’ll also put a meal in the slow cooker. I’m realising increasingly, though, that this or bulk cooking has to become the norm because we’re either out at afternoon activities or I’m just too tired in the evening to cook anything.
Find quiet amongst the noise
Kind of related to this, because I usually manage it in the mornings if at all, I’ve learned to take advantage of times when the kids are doing their own thing, playing in their rooms, dancing in the kitchen or making something out of the recycling.
I used to feel that time to read, meditate or pray was only worthwhile if there was a lot of it, in silence and without distraction, but now I recognise that even in the small snatches of time, surrounded by chaos, even if it’s as simple as focusing my mind in the shower or listening to a podcast while I chop vegetables, that even these small things are potent.
However, if I do need a longer period of time then I’m not at all averse to suggesting a movie during the two year old’s nap time or an emergency TV session for all three because I just need to do something not child-related, uninterrupted for an hour or two. I just need to make sure we’re not resorting this too much on days when I’m struggling to engage as we all end up grumpy with each other.
Focus on life skills
On recognising learning where it’s happening, I’ve found that focusing on helping the kids develop their life skills makes things run so much more smoothly for all of us. Their emptying the dishwasher or putting away laundry genuinely eases my load.
Even when asking them to help means doing it with them and breaking it down into step by step tasks, we are spending time together. I’d rather just get on with baking bread on my own but involving my four-year-old means she gets better at measuring things, cracking eggs and throws up good conversations about yeast and carbon dioxide.
They don’t always want to help but that too throws up learning opportunities in the form of talking and listening to each other’s feelings. Even when I wind up doing things on my own, I remind myself that I am modelling what it looks like to follow through on tasks you don’t necessarily want to do yourself.
More often than not, though, we’re able to find solutions that everyone is comfortable with. The kids currently have a thing about setting the egg timer when they’re cleaning up the playroom or their bedroom to see whether they can beat the time. And I have The Greatest Showman soundtrack to thank for making boring jobs more palatable.
I’m also trying to delegate more tasks to them that they naturally enjoy. My seven-year-old loves cooking and baking and she’s increasingly doing more of it on her own. She and my four year old both enjoy washing up and though I do need to go over the odd pot, I’m more than happy to leave that task to them while their zest for it lasts! Even my two year old gets a kick out of putting the fruit and vegetables away when the food shop arrives or helping me load and unload the laundry.
If all is going wrong (and by this, I generally mean if I’m losing my temper or the kids are fighting), getting outdoors often proves an easy fix. Many a den building session in the woods or a run around on a beach or even mud play in our garden has helped restore calm or at least offer temporary respite from whatever I’m finding hard to cope with.
Granted, it can be difficult getting ready to even get outside. All I can say is that I have totally taken kids to the park in pyjamas and wellies.
And actually, as an extension of that, I know that I need the endorphin hit of exercising, preferably outdoors, to help me feel in any way normal.
Get one thing done
Another quick pick-me-up is give myself an easy win by getting one achievable thing done. This could be making a phone call to make or cancel an appointment, cleaning the sink or getting a postcard out for a child to write to a friend. Sometimes I’ll even write it on a to-do list retrospectively just so I can tick it!
Make time for my own learning
I’ve found that whenever the personal cost of home education feels too high, I’m generally not pursuing my own passions. I wind up feeling like I’m pouring myself out for everyone else, pointlessly. At the same time, I find it difficult to prioritise spending time this way when there’s so little of it to go around. For me there seem to be two ways of approaching this problem.
One is to remind myself that seeing me learning, reading, working or otherwise doing my own thing that’s critical to my children’s learning and their own development as lifelong learners. Sometimes this means letting the kids run riot while I write a blog post or ignoring a messy room while I get my guitar out and sing in the middle of it.
The other is that I cannot do everything alone and seriously don’t think I’m meant to. Despite giving a lot of thought to how work is shared in our home, Laurence and I still sometimes fall into thinking about home education and domestic tasks as primarily my responsibility.
We are making this choice together and if one of us is finding it hard then both of us need to work at achieving balance. As it stands, our roles are defined by him working full time and me being with the kids full time but we’ve worked more this year at freeing up more time for me to do other things. I am getting better at putting the SOS out when I need it and we have an ongoing conversation about the mental load and things we both want to change.
Choose empathy over self-flagellation
This is so key I kind of wonder whether I should have led with it. I realise when I reach the end of the day, berating myself about how rubbish I am at doing this parenting thing and picking my life apart, what I’m actually doing is punishing myself because I believe I deserve punishment.
This just makes me feel worse, trapping me in a cycle of repeating all the things I don’t want to repeat, like being easily irritated and struggling to organise my time productively. It’s as if I think that if I’m hard enough on myself, I’ll learn from my mistakes when actually, the opposite is true.
Instead, I need to treat myself with kindness, to extend empathy to the woman who’s having a bad week, who’s wearing her hurts on the outside. I want to know where she’s coming from and what’s really going on inside her today. And I want her to know that perfection really isn’t a thing. She may have measured her accomplishments for most of her life but it really isn’t a thing anymore.
And so I probably need to let go of things, to return to the first point in this post. But also, to choose to be less busy. Now that we have one car we stay local a bit more and I’m finding not having anything planned on a Friday quite freeing.
I’ve also released myself from feeling that we have to take on lots of activities and groups or even to meet up with people every day. For me, this is self-empathy in action, especially as my kids are quite young and are happy with not being too busy.
I appreciate that others might well need the opposite! In fact, I’d love to hear from other home ed families, what helps when you feel overwhelmed?
“You could drive over on your own.”
I’d been agonising over how to see friends in Bristol I’d promised to see before the summer holidays were up – friends I hadn’t managed to see the last few times we’d been back. Our weekends were all booked up. When Laurence suggested that I just take the kids over midweek, I was surprised that I felt OK about that. I’d never driven three hours completely on my own. When we moved from Bristol to Cornwall with two cars, we drove in convoy. But OK. This was another plaster to rip off.
In many ways, I think living in Cornwall has massively improved my driving. I used to always stick to the familiar, usually relatively close destinations when I lived in a city. Things are more sprawling here and I was keen to get out and really plug into the home educating community. Living in the countryside means I’ve had to get used to reversing down narrow roads to let others pass and not driving at 20 or 30 all the time. Generally, I’m a far more confident driver, which accounts for why I did take that Bristol trip but also for the fact that I now drive a van, something 28-year-old me would never have thought possible when she passed her driving test four and half years ago.
In truth, I find driving the van easier than any car we’ve owned. Parking can be a pain sometimes and it’s a lot more to clean but I love being high up and able to see more of what’s around me when I’m driving. It’s locking is actually better than a couple of the others I’ve driven, certainly impressive for something of that size. Having a sensor for reversing is a dream for someone who definitely finds spatial awareness challenging. And the space! Two weeks ago we went on a camping trip with my family and it was the first time we’ve done a camping trip and not had to load up every possible gap in the car.
When I made back to home after our big trip upcountry, I felt like my world had opened up a little bit more. Not that I intend to do lots of road trips now (in fact, we want to stay local as much as possible) but I didn’t feel as cut off as I did before. I realised that I’d felt dependent on Laurence to be able to get to the rest of the country.
I think the next step is to keep improving my driving, for my confidence, for my passengers’ comfort and even for my Car Insurance. The Aviva Drive app makes that pretty easy. You download the app, which now includes an integrated dash cam feature, and it monitors your driving skills. So safer drivers can get a discount on their insurance and you even have evidence should you ever get into an accident.
Driving at all honestly felt unattainable for me a few years ago. I don’t take it for granted. We wouldn’t have moved to somewhere rural if I couldn’t drive and I probably would find home educating a lot more daunting, living here without a car. I still feel like learning to drive and continuing to learn has opened me up to a lot of possibilities. So often I default to learned helplessness and I need to keep pushing to break out of it, not just for my sake but so that my kids grow up knowing that they are capable.