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  • The secret to surviving (and actually enjoying) the festive season…

    If I see one more advert or piece of editorial about how to have the perfect Christmas, I won’t be held responsible for my actions.

    It’s not that I want to go all ‘Bah, Humbug!’ on you, but it’s taken me the best part of twenty years to realise that we’re being sold a lie with all this ‘perfect Christmas’ nonsense.

    Why? Because, put quite simply, the notion of the perfect Christmas is as much a misnomer as the perfect wedding, the perfect birth or the perfect child. There simply is no such thing. 

    What there *is* … is the wedding where the father of the groom trips over the front doorstep after collecting the cake and drops it on the floor the night before the big day – which still seemed perfect, despite those wonky hastily-stuck-back-on-with-icing-sugar flowers. 

    What there also *is* … is a dramatically fast and scary birth with no time for much-needed pain relief, never mind filling the birthing pool for the peaceful water birth you’d been elaborately planning for nine months. 

    Oh, and there are also the kids you got in the lottery of life, who are no more perfect than their far-from-perfect mother, but who you wouldn’t swap for all the tea in China.

    See? No such thing as perfect, no matter what Pinterest or Instagram try to tell us.

    And then there’s Christmas. With its financial implications, overloaded expectations and exceeded budgets. It’s no wonder Christmas is one of the most stressful periods of the year for many, and a time noted for being especially busy if you’re a divorce lawyer.

    Chuck in the pressures of family life – how to decide which set of in-laws to spend the big day with, whether the kids should be allowed to open all of their presents at 5am, and the whole question of how to make Christmas magical and memorable for your little people, even though you might be dealing with grief, relationship breakdown or money worries. It’s no wonder lots of us feel more Woe-Woe-Woe than Ho-Ho-Ho about Christmas.

    So, this year, I’m taking it upon myself to remind all and sundry that there is simply no such thing as the perfect Christmas, and that the secret to actually enjoying the festive season is to wholeheartedly embrace this fact.

    What that means in practice is accepting that families come in all sorts of strange shapes and sizes, and that not resembling the Waltons is no grounds for having a miserable day. Christmas, like life, isn’t about trying to live up to unrealistic ideals, to which none of us will ever attain. 

    It’s about sharing Christmas with random relatives who’ve never once offered to host Christmas at their house; tolerating ancient aunts with funny habits; turning a blind eye to Grandpa falling asleep in the middle of the starter; and enduring parents bickering over the right way to brown a turkey. And, at the end of the day, it’s about realising that the kids, for whom every Christmas is perfect, don’t notice or indeed care about any of that stuff.

    After all, the first Christmas, so the story goes, was far from perfect. No room at the inn, no crib for the baby, and surely a choice word or two exchanged between the main players about what on earth was going on.

    I’m not alone in believing that the secret to the perfect Christmas is to wholeheartedly embrace the imperfect, either. I undertook comprehensive research on this topic (ok, I asked my mates on Facebook) and one friend admits she aspires to be more like a particular mum of four she knows. 

    Does said mum pull off the perfect Christmas? She does, in her own way. She lets each child choose their favourite foods from Iceland and puts on an all-day buffet where everyone gets to eat their favourite things and mum gets a well-earned rest. Well done, that woman.

    “Not getting dressed up, eating what you really fancy – usually bacon sarnies, Christmas pudding and a box of Thornton’s chocolates – all washed down with a mug of tea, is my idea of heaven at Christmas,” admits another friend.

    One pal recalls a pearl of wisdom she once heard on surviving the madness of the average family festive season. “Every family has a drunken uncle or an unhinged aunty round the table at Christmas,” she says. “If you can’t think who that person is, then it’s probably you.”

    I honestly believe that the secret to your happiest Christmas yet lies in embracing these difficult truths. So do yourself a favour this year. Lower your expectations. Buy frozen Yorkshire puddings. Laugh at the lunacy of the motley crew gathered round your dinner table. And, above all, try seeing Christmas through the eyes of a child whose sense of wonder blots out the imperfections. (Unless you forget to buy batteries, and then nothing can help you.)

    Children don’t see the financial pressures, the emotional strain or indeed the point in eating sprouts. They see fun, gifts, festive togetherness, and at least several days ahead of getting away with chocolate for breakfast. What’s not to love?

    Don’t be afraid to rip up the rule book and do Christmas according to your own rules this year. Several friends of mine swear by going away for some quiet family togetherness at Christmas. But if you can’t get out of navigating tricky family dynamics or suffering traditions you don’t entirely fancy honouring, try embracing the imperfect anyway.

    Invest time and emotional energy in the little things that can make Christmas Day truly special. One year I took a walk to the beach with my middle child, who often ends up sandwiched between the needs of his older brother and younger sister. He’d literally never seen the streets so empty, so I indulged him with an impromptu dance all the way home right down the middle of the road. 

    I *might* have had one Baileys more than was strictly necessary at that point but it’s a memory he seems to cherish, and not a year has passed since where he hasn’t begged for a rerun of our Christmas street dance routine.

    It’s the little things that matter to kids. What they remember is small acts of kindness. Moments of tenderness and togetherness that cut through the rushing that we do so much of throughout the rest of the year.

    Christmas, ultimately, isn’t about any of the things we get so het up about. It’s about slowing down to meet yourself. Taking time to let your loved ones know just how much they mean to you. Choosing thoughtful, inexpensive gifts that mean more than money could ever buy. 

    Watching Elf together for the hundredth time and still finding it funny. Eating cheese as if it’s an actual meal choice. Hanging the hand-made tree decorations that make you feel a tiny bit more teary every year, and making space for small rituals that bind you closer together as a family and remind you that who you are together and how your day unfolds is the closest thing to perfect that you will ever know. 

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    Written by Kirsty Nicholls

    We’ve all done it. A blog post has popped up on our Facebook timeline and we’ve had a quick squiz. Before we know it, it has absorbed us. It describes exactly how we’re feeling using words that we haven’t been able to find ourselves. So we hit “like” and share, share and share some more. And realise that we’re as normal as normal can be. Or at least, that there are other mums and dads out there who are just as weird as us.

    ohn Adams started Dad Blog UK a week before his second daughter was born in response to the “lazy sexism” he experienced as a stay at home dad. “It can’t just be me who finds it annoying,” he says. “When I’m out with the children, people often assume I’m babysitting. The nurse asked for my wife when I took my daughter for her inoculations. So my blog supports other dads who are made to feel out of place as the main carer.” John is now the UK’s top dad blogger and his writing has taken him on adventures galore. He recently found himself interviewing actor Steve Carrell and in his blog laments the fact that “I was still wearing the clothes I wore for the school run: an old pair of navy shorts missing a button.” We’ve all found ourselves in “parent clothes” at the wrong moment, right?

    John is now working with four other dad bloggers to reach a combined readership of 1.2 million. The parent blogosphere is a busy space. Directory of UK parent blogs Tots100 has more than 8,000 members. To stand out in such a saturated market requires careful planning. “Research is everything,” reveals successful blogger Beth Macdonald. Beth is Managing Editor of Career Girl Daily, which offers life improvement and career advice to young women. Although it was only established 3 years ago, it already reaches a global monthly audience of 1.5 million. The company is now sharing its know-how with other wannabe bloggers through new book, The Ultimate Blog Plan. “Make sure you look at what your audience is reading and what your competitors are publishing,” she advises. “You need to create a unique voice full of personality. We put together a spreadsheet every week, picking out statistics to analyse how each of our articles has performed and why.”

    Slummy Single Mummy writer Jo Middleton could also host a masterclass in blogging. Winner of numerous awards and named Top Mummy Blogger 2017, she has been writing Slummy Single Mummy for 8 years after leaving a job in fundraising and marketing. “I took a leap of faith into the world of freelance journalism,” she says. “My blog started out as a marketing tool to showcase my writing. Now I’m approached to write advertorials and sponsored posts. It was a gradual process, but the balance tipped towards it being my main source of income.” Many a blogger’s dream is to write full time, but producing content is only part of the job. “My friend is a teacher, and so many of his students want to be bloggers,” says Dad Blog UK’s John Adams. “That isn’t as simple as it might sound, though. You need skills in videography, photography, social media management and feel confident about search engine analytics too.” And freelancing isn’t a walk in the park either. “You need to ask whether it would matter to you if you didn’t earn a penny one month,” says Laura Crichton, creator of Edinburgh with Kids. “If you’re in a position where a regular income isn’t a necessity, then blogging would be an amazing career.”

    By day, Laura Crichton is a secondary school teacher. She was inspired to start her blog after reading and then writing for a site that she admired. The positive feedback she received sealed the deal and Edinburgh with Kids was born. “I want people to get a happy vibe from my blog,” she says. “It’s positive and thought-provoking. I’m hopefully offering a different kind of support, writing about this amazing city and all of the things there are to do here.” Hearing from people who have visited a place or tried an activity off the back of a photograph she has shared is the icing on the cake. Fellow Edinburgh blogger Caroline Blair also loves meeting people who enjoy reading her work. “I met a friend of a friend in the park who knew me from my blog. She said my posts really resonate with her and that felt great.” Blogging is a labour of love for Caroline, creator of Finding Mum. “I post about activities that I probably wouldn’t normally go to, and have brilliant new experiences with my son. I make free vodcasts about local businesses because I love filming and editing. It’s something for me.”

    Caroline views Finding Mum as a hobby rather than a commercial venture. For many parents, simply the opportunity to write and share their thoughts is valuable enough. Jennifer Anderson recently launched Positive Mind Positive Mummy, an honest blog about living with postnatal depression. She hopes that by talking publicly about her experiences, she’ll help others who are in the same boat. “I was talking to one of the mums at the school gate and mentioned my postnatal depression. Because I had been honest, she admitted that she had some of the same feelings. So I decided to talk openly about my postnatal depression, so other mums know it is okay to not be okay.” As well as helping her readers, she has found that her blog has helped loved ones to better understand her. “I am very close to my mum and although she knew how I was feeling I don’t think she truly understood,” says Jennifer. “So mum is enjoying reading things that I didn’t feel like I could speak to her about. My partner is the most supportive person I could ask for however he too is able to learn things about me that he didn’t know.”

    According to Wordpress, over 409 million people are reading blogs every month. It’s inevitable that your friends, acquaintances, family and colleagues will be among them, so deciding what to put into the public sphere can be tricky. “I’m not much of an over-sharer, because I teach secondary boys,” says Laura Crichton of Edinburgh with Kids. “Once the students found my Twitter feed and thought they might discover something juicy. They soon lost interest when they saw my latest tweet was about a museum visit.” Each and every one of us has a digital footprint and most don’t want their babies’ every vomit and nappy explosion to become googleable. But how about our own misdemeanours? “Some bloggers purposely overshare and play on it to create a public persona,” says Laura.”But did they really feed their children fish fingers straight from the freezer? Probably not.” Slummy Single Mummy blogger Jo Middleton says she’ll use her blog to confess to hiding dirty dishes in the cupboard, but never push for a laugh at the expense of her children. “My children were 7 and 14 when I started the blog, so I’ve always written in the knowledge that they might read it.” Caroline Blair had a frank and honest chat with her friends and family when she launched Finding Mum. “I felt I should reassure them that I’d never communicate my thoughts or feelings to them personally through my blog,” she recalls. “I’d never want them to read a post and think it’s a thinly veiled message to them. I have found that it gives them a heads up if I’ve had a bad week though, or helps them to better understand some of my experiences. Blogging has been a hugely positive experience.”

    Photo copyright Freepick.com

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    What’s your ideal holiday? If you had asked me ten years ago, the answer was easy. Reading good books, getting some sun, sleeping in, eating out. Basically relaxing. I didn’t need to go to the warmest beach or the hottest club – my needs were simple. Or so I thought. Until I first tried holidaying with a baby.

    Looking back, I think if even one person had pointed out that holidays are different with children, I might have been less shocked by what followed. But most of my friends didn’t have kids yet, and I had no nieces or nephews. Of course, you may be reading this thinking it should have been starkly obvious that holidaying with children is an entirely different experience, and I can only agree with you – I don’t know why it wasn’t abundantly clear, but at bit like pretty much everything else with parenting, it wasn’t.

    So off we went, my husband, my eleven-month-old baby girl and me, to spend a week in an apartment in Spain. We were worried about the flight (and rightly so as it turned out) but once we touched down in Malaga, we were home-free and ready to holiday.

    Except of course for the bit where we had to push the buggy up a steep hill to get to the apartment - we’d been there before but couldn’t remember the hill being such a monumental challenge. We took turns pushing, huffing and puffing while my daughter sat happily inside, promising ourselves a cool glass of white wine on the balcony once we arrived.

    Except of course, as we soon discovered, eleven-month-olds like to crawl around and pull things down on top of themselves – they’re not really fans of watching their parents drink white wine on balconies. So instead we set about child-proofing the apartment and the wine stayed in the fridge. We’d have a glass while getting ready to go out, we promised ourselves.

    Except of course getting-ready-to-go-out time coincided with the baby’s dinner-time, so instead of putting on mascara while sipping a crisp Pinot Grigio, I was chopping peppers and cooking pasta. We did eventually get out the door, around an hour later than planned, but at least the baby was fed and happy in her buggy. As we set off down the hill, I wondered what had possessed me to wear heels, but at that stage we were too hungry to turn back. Everything would be fine once we were sitting down eating, with the baby sleeping quietly beside us.

    Except of course, she was still wide-awake when we arrived at the restaurant, and after a few minutes staring around, she wanted out. So she spent the entire meal sitting on my knee, putting her hand into my Prawns Pil Pil or sitting on my husband’s knee, trying to eat his steak. Was it in any way like the relaxing, romantic holiday meals we were used to? Nope, and I still had to make it back up the hill in my heels. At home, we decided we’d get the baby down to sleep, then sit on the balcony and finally open that bottle of wine.

     Except of course in an unfamiliar travel cot in an unfamiliar room, it took her far longer than usual to settle. In the end, my husband fell asleep with her in the bed, and I slept in the other room. The parents who had emphatically proclaimed having kids wouldn’t change a thing were both out for the count by nine o’clock.

    And the surprises kept coming – the first one at 5am the following morning when my daughter woke even earlier than usual, something she continued to do for the whole week. The apartment was too small for turn-taking lie-ins, so each morning all of us got up. The sun was hotter than expected and we were worried about our fair-skinned daughter, so sunbathing was put on hold. Our planned trips to the beach were replaced by walks on the seafront, and the books we’d brought lay untouched at the bottom of the suitcase. A week later we went home every bit as tired as we’d been flying out, but armed with new knowledge about what to expect when holidaying with kids.

    Except of course, then we had another child, and this threw up a whole host of new challenges and even less rest. By the time our third child came along, I was reluctant to go anywhere at all, but my husband booked us into a campsite in Brittany, and off we went on the ferry. I’ll never forget those two weeks in our little mobile home – listening to the rain pelting down on the roof, watching the puddles grow outside, while three small children huddled inside. Getting up three, four, five times a night to my youngest – never a good sleeper anyway, but determined to show us exactly what he thought of his tiny room in a tiny mobile home in rainy France. I went home from that holiday a shell of my former self, wondering what possessed us to go anywhere with three kids under five.

    Thankfully, my husband is braver than I, or perhaps more optimistic, so we did try again – but this time with no expectations. I was ready for no sleep, no downtime, no lie-ins, no nights out. We chose a holiday focused entirely around the kids – swimming pools, pony-trekking, petting zoos, and bicycle-hire. A barbecue on the deck so we didn’t have to brave restaurants. A little further south, so we had more chance of sun.

    And it worked. The kids loved it, the sun shone, they were busy all day, and slept all night. Each evening after we got them down, we would sit out on the still-warm deck as the charcoal embers faded in the barbecue and the crickets sang. And we could finally take those dusty books out of the suitcase and open that long-awaited, much anticipated bottle of wine.

    written by Andrea Mara

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    One family’s venture into digital detox

    It’s the last thing I look at at night and the first thing I check in the morning. It helps me to feel connected to the world in the long hours I spend winding the bobbin up and recounting Insy Winsey’s perilous trip up the drainpipe. It’s there when I’m cutting grapes into quarters, rocking the baby to sleep under the kitchen fan and trying to sound super enthusiastic about the request to dress up and play ‘sparkle unicorns’ on 5 hours broken sleep. It gives me news, opinions that reinforce or challenge my own and it delivers reassuring advice in a world where most of us are winging this parenting thing. It’s a camera, map, timetable, encyclopaedia, alarm, my whole music collection and a marketplace. It educates me, entertains me and helps me socialise with loved ones many miles away. In short, I love my phone, my iPad, my laptop. But the realisation of the centrality of screens in our family life made me nervous. It was the effect of my eldest turning four and receiving an iPad that made me think we might need a bit of a detox.

    Think back to your best memory of play from your first seven years on the planet. I’d put good money on the fact that for most of you it was outside and required no adult intervention. When you have kids you can’t help but compare your own childhood to theirs. For better or worse, most of us want to replicate the good bits and improve on the bad bits. I remember being bored A LOT but at the end of a long day, if I could prise the hallowed remote from my brother’s claws, Andy Crane/Peters in the broom cupboard and a bit of Pat Sharp’s funhouse sorted that right out. I don’t remember learning much from TV, and I would have chosen the garden and surrounding fields over it most days. I’d watch my favourite program when it was on, and then wait a week until the next instalment. If I missed it or wanted to watch it again, well that would mean having to work out how to program the video player, which in our household nobody ever did. Conversely nowadays, thanks to iPlayer, my daughter can watch as many episodes of Octonauts as she wants, and better still, each episode runs gloriously into the next episode into wee sea-creature laden perpetuity. Because we only let her watch catch-up there’s no sitting through the adverts (small blessing) but there’s no novelty either. It’s a preschool version of the echo chamber. You know you’re having a bad mummy day when Netflix asks your toddler if they’re still watching (and they are). Our four year old can tell me what an sea anemone is but she can’t yet ride a bike or climb a tree and this doesn’t sit well with me.

    The arrival of little brother last year gave screens a special sort of status they’d never held before. Now they were a holding activity, a huge help in the newborn days. “Mummy, can we play sparkle unicorns?” “Yep, just let me feed/change/get the baby to sleep and I’ll be right there.” And out of guilt I’d suggest she watch an episode of her favourite program or play a game because quite honestly I couldn’t think of anything else a lot of the time. Because we’d been gifted a horrendous sleeper, I was a zombie. Before we knew it 45 minutes had elapsed and she was still going. It was an easy cycle to fall into. I just needed to keep everyone happy and I wasn’t too discerning about how. A typical morning in our household pre-ban: The alarm goes, someone goes and gets the teas, the four year old comes bounding in with iPad and the baby has a boob. Mum and dad gaze at their phones in the precious half hour before anyone has to shower and the four year old deftly swipes away at her tablet, being taught how to count to 100 by an animated caterpillar called Jerry. It wasn’t like this every morning (it was)…but it increasingly became the way things were. Once the kids had gone to bed we’d catch up on replying to emails and messages; both of us putting connecting with the other to the bottom of our lists. One of us would watch a program, the other would be on their phone. All of a sudden I realised the screens weren’t filling time, but taking it from us. Giving us more to do, not less. Add to that the sudden tantrums, moodiness and night wakings from four year old and we’d reached crisis point. Being whimsical all-or-nothing sort of people, over a few beers we decided to lock up the screens for a week. And of course the rules applied to us too. Phones only for phone calls. No TV, no computers. Would we survive? Better than that.

    Day 1 my husband wakes up and decides that if we are going to do this, we’re going full on ‘Waltons’. Breakfast round the table with Radio 4 on to keep us updated with anything interesting. Four year old and baby look groggy and bemused as we enthusiastically pass the toast round and begin to explain the rules. It strikes me how it’s not often both kids see both us parents united as opposed to swapping over so the other gets a rest. “So no phones or tablets or TV for a week and…” I think on my feet “and when I’m feeding the baby, you can ask me to tell you a sparkle unicorn story”. Her eyes light up. I feel a stab of guilt as I realise how awesome that simple thing is for her. We walk to nursery (instead of bus), we talk and I really try hard to listen properly despite being disgustingly tired. I realise suddenly that I need to up my game. The little organising voice in my head suggests a few things I need to google, check and buy and I ignore it. At home I do some serious tidying to the radio and become an expert in the challenges facing care homes in the UK and listen to a play about a robot babysitter that goes rogue. Later on there are several requests to ‘watch something’ post 3pm because she is tired. I discover some old story CDs. The effect is the same but calmer. “It’s ok mum. I made the pictures in my head”. I’ve underestimated my kid. I’m super proud. I begin to feel better about the whole thing.

    Three days in, after a lovely breakfast, I’m feeling pretty chuffed with myself. I excitedly tell a dad on the nursery run about our experiment. He seems really interested and tells me quietly that they use the iPad to get their two year old to eat his breakfast. We all seem calmer. Life seems less rushed. I’m feeling like there is less to do. The four year old though is positively glowing. It’s so striking that I begin to realise that the moodiness and tantrums were less about her spending too much time on her tablet, and more about me thinking that a game or CBeebies storytime was more exciting that just sitting and chatting to her mum. This screen ban is becoming more profound as I realise that it’s helping us repair and rebuild a relationship that has taken a few hits since the arrival of her little brother a few months previously. I also realise that getting a bit bored makes you creative. In those first few days we do more drawing, tell more stories and just hang out more than we have in ages. On my part it was a sort of experiment in mindfulness, I chose my words carefully, forgot the clock, looked around myself and dug deep when all I wanted to do was switch something on and switch off. The 4 year old didn’t ask for the iPad. Not even once.

    Like a detox, in the quiet moments it felt like I had an itch I couldn’t scratch, or like I’d forgotten something. The fact I couldn’t instantly publish my thoughts and photos also made me consider how much we’ve come to rely on outside approval of our private lives. Does my baby stop being gorgeous because his photo doesn’t get any ‘likes’? Did I miss it? A little bit. I think sometimes being the stay-at-home parent can be a bit isolating, so for me it’s a community as well. Saying that though, social media has also been accused of creating loneliness because it gives the illusion of community minus the real contact, meaning people don’t seek out ‘real’ social encounters. In my case, with no WhatsApp or Facebook, I picked up the phone to chat, stayed a bit longer talking to other parents after drop offs and arranged to see old friends I’d put off for weeks. I stuck to appointments - it’s harder to say ‘can we rain check because the baby is napping/the four year old is tired and whiny?’ in person than in text. Is technology turning us into social quitters? Without our screens to distract us, at the end of the week Mr Sykes and I are also on form, with talking not only reserved for a post mortem of our respective days but the new ideas and experiences we had when not scrolling.

    So did we stick to it? The tablet is still in the cupboard. She doesn’t miss it or Jerry the caterpillar and nowadays we do our counting together. CBeebies is back but seriously time limited with a good few days without it. I still love my phone but I also really enjoy leaving it behind on purpose when I’m out with the sprogs. I still love Radio 4 and we still have family breakfast together every morning. Most importantly four year old and me are best mates again and I’m getting really good at sparkle unicorn stories. 

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