The one where I go too far… maybe?

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Oh god, I think I’ve tipped over the edge. Remember I mentioned that we’d gone on holiday to Devon in June? No, of course not. Well we DID. And it was amazing. We were stupidly, hallucinogenically lucky with the weather. It was like Saint Tropez but with cockles and rock pools and without the need to wax and starve yourself within an inch of extinction before arrival.

We went with a big group of families, which was great too since the kids played and punched without much need of intervention, leaving us time to doze and pretend to read impressive books. What was really amazing, though, was the family we stayed with. They moved there in the seventies, when the house was just a leaky barn. They were proper hippies (though they might loathe the word – so sorry if you’re reading) not the trustafarian, macrobiotic kind, the real deal. They built the house themselves and by hand, had their babies amid the rubble and the fields, and were, pretty much, entirely separate from the money economy for a while – growing, tending and baking their own food; building, fixing and sewing their own things; trading skills and goods with neighbours.

Which was, in itself, enough to make me self-consciously shuffle my own, ‘made in China’ shoes. But what I really noticed where the kids. Born and raised with all this (and completely without the usual piles of plastic toys or telly) they’re now in their twenties. You might expect them to be a little… eccentric. But they’re absurdly cool and kind. And  - this is what struck me – extraordinarily, almost unbelievably resourceful.

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One day, as we were driving to the beach, their son was digging up clay in the lane as we passed. By the time we came back in the afternoon, he’d built a pizza oven with it. The next day, we made our own pizzas, cooked them in the oven, and ate them while watching the sun set over the fields. He makes his own clothes, even his own spectacles. He travels the world, paying his way and surfing. And yeah, I’m sure it’s not perfect and has its own irritations but it all looked so… free. Not to need the stuff or services most of us (especially me) rely on routinely. It looked (under the sun and a liberal dose of gin) so liberating.

Even with the gin I was dimly aware that I’d be a bit rubbish at living like that full time. Nevertheless, I blame that holiday for what came next. I booked a very weird kind of break for August. And since August is now upon us, and the gin has long since worn off I’m beginning to feel a bit nervous.

Next week, me, Tom, Johnny and the baby are all going to life in the forest for a week, working as volunteers in an eco-community that described itself thus:

“We’re currently a group of 11 adults, spanning a wide age range, and 2 young children. We are … a small woodland community which uses environmentally sound methods of working the land without fossil fuels.

We have planning permission for self-built houses on the condition that we make a living from the land. We make our monetary incomes mainly through forestry, apple work and gardening. As a result we’re money poor but otherwise rich!

We manage about 28 acres of douglas fir, larch, and mixed broadleaf woodland using horses, two person saws, and a wood-fired steam-powered sawmill.

Our pastures, orchards, and gardens are organically certified, and no-dig methods are commonly used. We press apple juice for sale, grow most of our own vegetables, keep chickens and bees, and sell our produce at farmers markets. We make loads of jam, chutney, pickles, cider, and wine.

We have solar powered 12v electricity, spring water on tap, and use compost toilets. We burn wood for cooking, heating, and for hot water in the bathouse. We eat little meat (mostly game), and try to cater for all diets. Though some of us would consider ourselves to be spiritual, we have no shared spirituality. Most people wash their clothes by hand. Life is lived mostly outdoors, so it’s cold in the winter, but we live on the top of a steep hill, so there’s plenty of chances to get warm! There’s loads of wildlife on site, particularly badgers, deer and ticks!”

We get our own guest house (built by the community from purely natural materials) with a wood burner. Apparently, the only things we need to bring are: “a torch, warm clothes, practical footwear, and any fresh looking roadkill you find en-route.”

It’ll be an adventure… Right?!

Slow parenting?

There’s nothing I hate more than parenting vogues… Last year, the American news channel NBC ran a story on us under the headline ‘Minimalist Mom’. It was a lovely piece but I nearly died. I mean, honestly. Show me the parent who has the time to come up with a coherent, sterile ‘parenting philosophy’ rather than stumbling through the day compromising, contradicting, patching up mistakes and swearing under her breathe and I’ll show you a Highly Suspect Person. She is almost certainly not changing all the nappies herself. Or is one of those inhuman beings who need no sleep at all. Or is on some sort of powerfully potent medication (in which case, where can we get these drugs? Answers on a postcard please…)

And anyway, one of the very best things about becoming a parent is finally letting go and just not giving a damn anymore what the magazines say you should be listening to, wearing, eating, reading, shoving on your face or into your home. Because who has time? And what does it matter now that whatever you put on anywhere is going to be covered in sick/poo/playdough/paint/mud/poo again within thirty seconds of its application. There is something immensely liberating about this, so the very idea of parenting ‘trends’ – another silly standard to live up to, buy into, measure ourselves by and come up short against – makes me want to scream into the oven.

All of which serves as an amazingly convoluted, ranty disclaimer for what follows…

Watching Frida, I find myself wondering whether our no spend project is having any impact on her yet. Though she is, of course, a genius, she’s still only eight months old so doesn’t have a detailed grasp of its ins and outs yet. Still, aware of it or not, the first eight months of her life have been quite different to J’s.

His days were filled with baby groups, music classes, a bit of baby yoga, Ella’s Kitchen pouches eaten in haste between appointments in his busy social schedule. She’s yet to go to a class of any sort. Or eat anything more sophisticated than a vaguely mashed up version of what’s on our plates. She spends a lot of time in the garden, examining the same old blades of glass. Or in her highchair, slowly but absorbedly rubbing porridge into the table.

Occasionally, I feel bad about this. Is it mean that Johnny was so spoilt in comparison to her? Is she missing out? But last week, she figured out how to turn a tambourine over (I know, what did I tell you – genius.)

She’s been playing with this old tambourine of Tom’s for weeks. It’s a bit tatty and very old and not the most impressive of toys. But she loves it and it was pulled out from some corner somewhere and so that’s what she’s playing with. So there she was, thumping the same old tambourine with her little fat fist while I absent-mindedly watched her over a coffee and some emails when suddenly, she flipped it over and discovered and discovered the underside of it – A Whole New World Of Tambourine. Her already-unfeasibly-round eyes opened so wide I though she might pop. And then her dribbly little lips parted and she laughed for five minutes, flipped it over again, laughed, flipped it over again, laughed and I watched, totally captivated, till my coffee turned cold.

In the last couple of weeks, a few similar moments have passed. There was the time she discovered how to pull blades of long grass out and shake them about above her head. The time she accidentally waved a spoon into her mouth, sat stock still in shock, then did it over and over again, refusing to be fed by anyone else.

And I wonder, sort of, while still loathing parenting vogues with a passion and retching over the label, whether there isn’t something to be said for ‘slow parenting’. Because I don’t think I noticed so many of these tiny triumphs the first time round. I think, maybe, we were too busy.

Our lives were too filled with different activities and different toys for the small stuff to stand out. Which isn’t to say that it was any worse. Just different. Last time, I loved some of those classes. I loved the relief they gave me from the potential monotony of childcare at home, day in day out. I loved the feeling they gave me that we were ‘doing something’. ‘Busy’ seemed to equate with ‘meaningful’. The idea of sitting around the house doing nothing much at all filled me with horror. If we were busy, we were winning at this parenting business. We were doing it right.

This time, though, the best bits seem to have arisen from that very ‘doing nothing’ that I feared before. It was ‘doing nothing’ that brought about the tambourine moment. And I think it’s those moments I’ll cherish most when Frida is twenty and I look back at her babyhood. I love them. And looking at her grubby, dribbling grin, I know she does too.

Would you give a child a used birthday present?

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Well would you?

There’s this little girl, right? She’s five and her sixth birthday’s been on my radar for months. The question of what to give her has been grappling for space in the back of my mind with each of the other 1001 things on my to-do-list. She likes animals, particularly monkeys. And she’s not a pink princess kind of a girl. More the kick-ass, adventuring kind.

Then, about a month ago, something came up on an online swapping site. It’s called a ‘jungle adventure playset’ and it is, quite simply, awesomely brilliant. It has trees and rope ladders, rivers and tree-houses. It came with a little tin box of jungle animals too and its owner was happy to hand it over in exchange for a couple of cakes.

Perfect, I thought. And it is. Kind of. Because on the one hand, I know she will love playing with it. I can already see her, utterly absorbed in the jungle world, swinging her little animals from its vines like George of the Jungle only a girl and a million times smoother.

But. But, but but… the box is tatty. Really tatty. It’s been patched up with sellotape (see below).

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And… some of the jungle parts are frayed at the edges. Which I knew when I did the deal. And, then, I didn’t care because I knew it didn’t matter. The frays are testament to how much the toy has been loved, the intensity with which its been played and, really, how much its next owner is going to love it too. Testament to the fact that it deserves a second lease of life, rescuing from the attic or landfill to give some fun and joy to another kid who, surely, isn’t going to notice the sellotape or the imperfections, her imagination soars right over those.

But now, it’s been in the house waiting to be wrapped up for a couple of weeks and every time I look at it I feel less sure. It’ll stand out among her other shiny new gifts. Maybe, by contrast, she will notice and our present will feel shabby and be shoved aside? Even if she doesn’t notice the places where it has been bashed up, her mother definitely will. We don’t know her that well… should I be embarrassed to give a ‘budget’ gift? Even though it’s actually worth more than anything we could have afforded to give her brand-new – will it look like we haven’t tried enough, or cared enough? Would something new say ‘we love you’ or even ‘thanks for having us’ better? Even though it is, of course, the thought that counts. And, actually, quite a bit has gone into this… Even so? What do you think?

falling off the wagon

Radio silence. It’s odd, isn’t it, how quickly you fall out of good habits. They take a lot to forge: effort, will power, determination… long stretches of plodding, pleading and coaxing of the obstinate mind as if it were an elderly, overweight donkey flicking flies in the sun. And then suddenly, one slip, and you’re off the wagon, lying confused on your back. Just like that.

I’ve blogged every week for eighteen months and loved it. It came naturally after six weeks or so, the words just slid through the keyboard and onto the screen: tappity tap. Even when I was heavy and exhausted and pregnant and the size of an elephant, when I was weepy, leaky and hormonal and trapped beneath a newborn, when I had six times as many work deadlines as brain cells… tappity tap, out it came automatically (which might explain the quality of some posts… apologies for that).

Then we went on holiday for a week. And suddenly it’s been sixteen days. And I just. can’t. get. my. mind. to work. I’ve fallen off the wagon. And from down here in the dirt, the effort it would take to clamber back up to the driving seat looks way too much like hard work. I’d rather lie down and gather dust in the road.

And, I’m afraid, the same goes for good habits. When we went on holiday, I gave myself a week’s grace on cloth nappies. I wasn’t sure what the washing set-up was going to be, so we bought a packet of pampers. And it was SO good. I hadn’t expected it. I don’t find cloth nappies tricky. I don’t mind the extra washing, the occasional poo scraping, the never-ending cycle of stuffing and unstuffing liners. Or, at least, I didn’t. I find it all, in its small way, rewarding. Or, at least, I did.

We came home, and the house was a tip and our street was scruffy and polluted and choked with cars and I missed the rural idyll of Devon and the kids running free through meadows without a moment’s thought about traffic or toys or The Octonauts and Captain (I’ll tell you just where you can stick your) Barnacles. And so I bought another packet of pampers. It was kind of like comfort eating: when you’re feeling low and you buy a family sized bar of the cheapest, tackiest chocolate you can find. And yeah, it’s partly because you’re going to love devouring it, but it’s also, partly, out of a kind of loathing, masochistic, self-pity-fest.

And then I bought another packet. And now – ARGH! – it’s been two and a half weeks. And I KNOW I need to go back. I know I’ll be happier when I make the break, when I’m not staring guiltily into The Pedal-Bin Of Landfill-Doom four times a day. But… The house is still a tip. There is more dirty washing in the basket than I can ever hope to wade through, more clean laundry hanging around the house than I can ever imagine coaxing into drawers. And the baby’s had a throat infection. And then we both had thrush. And builders are going to be taking our house apart for the next six weeks and and and… I want that giant bar of Dairy Milk. Actually, I want a whole KFC family bucket meal to go with it because once you let one corner of a project go, the whole structure starts to wobble. I want to take the baby to a music class. I want to buy crisp new clothes for them in the online sales. When we were away, one of the other families had those strawberry mini rice cakes for babies. They were quite convenient. I want, I want, I want…

Except I don’t of course. I know that. But it’s hard to grab hold off your principles while you’re flat on the dirt track and the dust is being kicked up around you. SOMEONE HAND ME MY STIRRUPS AND HAUL ME BACK ONTO THAT WAGON, PLEASE!

Sponsored post: how to entertain the parents for free

Sorry for the radio silence, we unplugged and ran wild and free range in Devon for a week. More to follow on that as soon as I’ve chipped away at the muddy cases of clothes and shaken the sand from the kids’ hair, ears, toes and fingernails. In the meantime, here’s a sponsored post that caught my attention and tempted me with its title – how to entertain the PARENTS for free. After a week of ingesting my bodyweight in good food and not-quite-as-dirt-cheap-as-usual wine, it seemed a good idea to remind myself that, well, it’s not just the kids whose self-control needs occasional management…

As a first time parent and follower of the Free Our Kids blog I have not only been attempting to follow the rules of spending as little as possible on our new addition to the family and nothing on clothes, toys and activities, but myself and my husband have taken this a step further by cutting right back on entertainment costs for our time alone too.

We feel that if we are not spending money on entertainment and activities for our one year old daughter, Chloe, then it is only fair that we do the same for ourselves. The following list details the ways that we’ve cut back on spending to save ourselves money to use in other ways as a family.

Nights Out

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Long gone are the days of fancy restaurants and fine dining out on the town as money is kept unspent and added to an account for the days that our newest addition grows up and leaves the nest. To be honest while the glamour of dressing up and hitting the town is missed, the core part of our nights out that myself and my husband had – the time spent together by ourselves – still remains as we stay in and take turns in cooking meals for each other at home. Money on a babysitter, taxis as well as food and drink is saved as we add the items for these meals to our weekly shopping and then indulge in each other’s company over a candle lit meal at home as our daughter sleeps upstairs.

Online Entertainment

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Both myself and my husband enjoy playing online games, both the social type of game that you find on Facebook and online gambling games. Before we embarked on this endeavour of cutting back our spending on our entertainment to nothing we used to play occasionally after adding a small amount of cash to the accounts. However, despite the fact that we are now not spending cash on entertaining ourselves we have still found the ability to play these online games as my husband plays the numerous freeroll tournaments at online poker sites, such as Pokerstars and Full Tilt Poker while I fill my online bingo habit by playing, and occasionally winning real money, in the freeroll bingo games at https://www.butlersbingo.com/. These offer the same entertainment levels, but with no risk and no money spent, and is a great way to spend an evening by yourself when you’d had one of those days that sees you just want your own company for a while.

Movie Night

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Before starting our regime to save as much money as possible for our daughter as she grows up myself and my husband were avid cinema goers, seeing new films each and every week. It was part of a great night out for us as we would often go for a drink or two after the movie safe in the knowledge that Chloe was being cared for by either our standard babysitter or one set of her grandparents. However, this has now been knocked on the head and we have saved massive amounts of money as a result of it. I do have to admit though some of the savings have been ploughed back into this pastime as we have subscribed to Netflix to feed our movie addiction, but with film tickets costing more than £10 each and this subscription service only £5.99 a month it is our one cheat purchase in our money savings list.

These three steps alone have already added several thousand pounds to a savings account for our daughter over the last few months and we have found that we are not missing any of our old lifestyle either. We are certainly not regretting trying this regime and with it working out so well for our family’s finances we’re unsure why we didn’t try this before now.