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Another way to rip you off…

November 13, 2010 1 comment

baby surrounded by money

it's mine, all mine!!!

I was out in London last night, on a rare Friday chatting to various girlfriends over mountains of wine and cheese, and amongst the many areas of conversation was the fact that many of life’s events (the two that sprang up were getting married and having kids) are seen a massive opportunity to bleed you for cash.

I have at least three friends currently planning weddings, and each of them has a horror story about a venue that was £N until they found out it was a wedding (now it’s £N x 3), or some other related issue that suddenly becomes more difficult or more expensive as soon as the word wedding comes into play.

The remainder of my social circle seem to be almost all either pregnant, or have a pre-schooler toddling around their house, giving them innumerable opportunities to be sold to and feel guilty. Apart from the reams of advice about how and what you should do about feeding, nappies, work etc, are endless supposedly well meaning acquaintances and magazine articles swearing blind that they couldn’t have managed without product “x”, or they would feel like  a bad parent without it.

The problem is of course, that engaged couples and new parents are prime sales targets – they *do* have to buy a certain amount of things, and emotions are high for both. Weddings will forever be paraded in videos and photos, and what the hell, it’s only once in our life, right? So it must be worth spending another £100, £1,000 or more to make sure it’s perfect.

New parents are not only beset with hormones and insecurity, but also many of us don’t live near to our extended families to solicit their advice, and even if we did – their experiences and the products they used may be hopelessly out of date or even now considered dangerous! My mum was aghast looking at my pregnancy scans, and it only really hit home how different it was when she explained how in the 70s, pregnancy was a case of 1) no period 2) doctor having a fumble to confirm diagnosis 3) get fat 4)hopefully have live child – with barely any medical input and nothing except the baby’s movements to confirm whether the child was alive or not, and certainly not what sex it was or whether there were any complications or disabilities to prepare for.

I am therefore forever thankful that my parenting story started in 2008, with an amazing amount of foreknowledge provided to me by the ever under-appreciated NHS.

I am also massively thankful that Jules and I’s amazing photographer friend Robbie Ewing, has decided to use our daughter Eleanor as a subject for a project of his – taking photos around each birthday to show the amazing growth and difference there is during a child’s formative years – and also saving us hundreds of pounds on the usually extortionate prices of baby studio photos.

Thank you Robbie, and for those who aren’t already bored of me talking about her – take a look at our gorgeous little girl here.

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Having your first baby – what you really need

August 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Now that Eleanor is two, the question that seems to be on everyone’s lips is when we’re going to “try” for number two. (Between the lines – are you shagging enough? ;))

The simple answer to that is that we’re skint until I find a new job, plus Jules isn’t mad keen. It’ll probably take a superhuman effort at persuasion, and even with that we realistically couldn’t start until I’ve been working for a few months. Bearing in mind our combined age is over 80, and how much harder it gets to conceive as time goes by, on balance it’s not looking very likely.

Many of my friends are having/ have had number two and as a result plenty of conversations have been had recently (often when contemplating the mass of baby stuff brought down from the loft) about what you really need for a newborn (clue: a lot less than you think).

Here’s a quick rundown of what you need:

Nappies – lots (tiny babies often need changing every couple of hours)

Note on re-usables: I love the thought, and have a couple of friends who swear by them, but I found dealing with a newborn hard enough without adding in even one extra step to the process of nappy changing. If you are going to try them, buy them from eBay and/or ask around your friends for trial packs that were bought but unused before you spend large amounts of money on them. As seems very common, I dutifully bought a trial set that never got opened, and this was passed to another far more worthy parent than me 🙂

Car seat – rear facing at first. This is mandatory, and also think about getting one that has a base that you leave permanently in the car. This is a godsend when you can just clip baby in and go, rather than faffing with seatbelts and waking them up unnecessarily.
Ditto pushchair wheels that you can put the car seat on- I’ve spent a productive two hours at the shops or visiting people with a baby Eleanor sleeping the entire time due to her not being disturbed by getting in and out of the car. Otherwise this would have been spent sitting at home waiting for her to finish sleeping before I could get out and about, which is a sure fire recipe for stir craziness.

Muslins – I used loads – what with spit up and reflux and how handy they are for all sorts of everyday issues, you can’t really have too many. Usually they’re around 30cm square, but if you find the larger ones around 50cm square then buy plenty, as these are great for using for a portable sunshade/sleep shade over the pushchair/car seat when out and about, and also help to cover the odd accidental boob appearance when breastfeeding in public.

Sling – I bought one of the classic
Baby Bjorn front carriers second hand on eBay at first, but didn’t get on with it as my boobs got in the way. In the end I found a material wrap style sling much more comfy, and there were times when it was a whole pile easier than getting the pushchair out of the car. If you’ll be walking up & down stairs, on an uneven pavement or going in & out of a few shops with slim aisles; the benefits of a sling are really appreciated.

Monitor – we found this crucial from the minute we put Eleanor in her own room. Of course you can hear crying from next door, but babies are actually quite noisy sleepers, and there are plenty of times that they’ll make what seems like a lot of noise but actually still be asleep. A monitor means you can hear the detail so you know if they’re distressed or not, but don’t get out of bed and disturb that essential sleep if it’s not strictly necessary.

Change mat – it will get messy. Small baby poos are very liquid and you’ll need all the help you can get to stop it getting on the furniture/carpet.

Babygros/all-in-one sleepsuits & bodysuits – lovely though the little designer baby outfits are in the shops, they’re a faff to get in & off, and if you can resist the temptation to spend £30 on an outfit that will get worn twice before they grow out of it, do. They can more or less live in babygros and bodysuits for the first 6 months, with the posh outfit being worn just for when you’re seeing the person who bought it.

A baby bath isn’t essential, as you can just sponge them down easily enough when they’re little. Once they’re more mobile it’s nice to have one of those sit-up bath supports so you can wash them without having to hold them with one arm at the same time, but it’s not essential at all.

If you’re bottle feeding, you’ll need bottles, teats, bottle brushes and some way of sterilising – although a hot dishwasher cycle also does the trick if you forget to take the paraphernalia with you once in a while. A quick hint – once we moved onto bottles I was worrying about how to get the boiling water cool quickly enough while she was busy crying and hungry; until a friend told me that the easiest way too have a bottle on hand at a moments notice was to prepare a few in advance – boil the water & measure enough into 3 or 4 bottles. Pre-measure the formula powder into a dispenser (they have compartments for each feed) and then you can keep the water at room temperature next to your bed as long as it remains sealed for 12 hours. Just tip in the powder and mix when the baby wakes up – a quick shake and the milk is ready. What a relief compared to waiting for it to cool each time.

Baby sleeping bags are brilliant – all you then need is a bottom sheet for your bed, and they’re snug all night without kicking off their covers.

Pushchair – this is the largest purchase you’ll make so think about what you’ll need it for – will you need it to be easily foldable for the car, lightweight for public transport etc. Many people end up buying a big travel system then also buying an umbrella fold pushchair a few months later as it’s such a faff to take anywhere – ask friends/other parents and don’t be afraid to go to a big Mothercare and try them all out – putting them up & down, etc before you decide.

Carrycot/moses basket/cot etc – we had a carrycot for the travel system, a moses basket and a cotbed, and we could have easily managed with just the latter two, or just the cotbed if necessary. People differ on how long you want the baby in your room, but in each case, you often find they sleep in/on practically anything when tiny, and they can’t usually roll over so you don’t need to spend £100s on a new sleeping facility for each stage of their development.

Most parents have varying views about what’s necessary and what’s not, but the thing I would guess most of us will agree on is that there is no shame in using hand-me-d0wns. Babies grow out of most things before they wear out, so always check with friends, Freecycle, on eBay and jumble sales before you lay out too much on something brand new. Lovely as it is to put your brand new baby into brand new stuff, a lot of it is totally superfluous and some of it I promise you will never even open, and end up passing on to other people within the next year.

Catford to Watford – only one letter but worlds apart

July 31, 2010 5 comments

This time last year we lived in Catford, south east London. Given that Jules had lived in that house for 20 years, I’d been there for 10, and it was plenty big enough to bring up a whole parade of children in, there’s been a fair amount of curiosity about why we moved house, and how on earth we decided on Watford, of all places. We’re 52 miles away from where we were, at the total opposite side of London and it’s definitely made it more difficult to see the friends we left behind – but believe me, there were a raft of very good reasons.

Firstly, our daughter Eleanor is now two, and even last summer we were (or rather I was) thinking about the future in terms of where we wanted to bring her up, and how we were going to deal with London’s famous supply/demand issues with decent state schools.

It may seem slightly forward to be worrying about schools before she’d even turned two, but during the previous couple of years I had been occasionally checking into our catchment area and what the future might look like, and it sent shivers down my spine. Seriously.

Most local primary schools were relatively OK, and this wasn’t the issue – my worry about schools is more about secondary level. Hormones can turn any normal teenager into a sullen freak, so they really need as much help as they can get to not go off the rails if at all possible (or just maintain it to slightly off the rails and keeping a vague hold on their education.) On checking the Ofsted website I found out two things:

1) The nearest excellent state secondary school was Haberdashers’ Aske’s Hatcham College in New Cross. 3rd best 16+ exam results in London – OK, sounds good. We also seemed to be in the official catchment area, so we could be looking good ……. or then again it could have

“the distinction of being the most over-subscribed state school in the country, with on average 2,500 applications for its annual intake of approximately 200 year 7 students

source: Wikipedia

Great.

2) Our closest secondary, Catford Girls School (now mixed sex, and also renamed after what the system calls “Special Measures” which sounds ominous enough) left a lot to be desired.
To give some context, on average 47% of state school leavers achieve 5+ A-Cs at GCSE level.
Catford school managed 19%. 19%!

Call me judgemental (I was the last year of O-levels after all), but I don’t see GCSEs as being the most stretching of exams, so in my book that means 81% of the schools’ 16 year olds are near functionally illiterate. Puberty is hard enough without dealing with a school that’s struggling, for whatever reason, and yes, I know that I am contributing to the unfair situation by emulating middle class flight and leaving the poor sods who don’t have the choice to suffer. In all conscience I just can’t risk my daughter’s future to make a stand for the ideal of a truly socially representative comprehensive system.

[Note: If you’re wondering how to get information on local schools yourself, I use Upmystreet, you just put in your postcode, it tells you what the neighbourhood’s, like, schools, your local shops etc – even whether you’re likely to be Guardian reader and own shares (From Mosaic and ACORN data – the marketers amongst you will recognise this, but for those who don’t – yes, big brother knows, or assumes a lot about you and your consumption habits – sorry!).]

So, the choice was – go private or move house to try to be closer to a good secondary school.

Now I’m a state school girl and am proud of it. We definitely had the view growing up that only thick people needed to pay for school (probably because the only person I knew who left our middle school to go to Leeds Girls High wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the box). It’s been a painful realisation that it’s totally different in London, so I’ve had to be more open minded about the concept of private schooling, whilst still underneath being thoroughly uncomfortable with Eleanor potentially experiencing an education that ensures she never meets a poor person.

Massively aware that I sound like a pompous rich bitch for saying all this – I have a full appreciation of how spawny we are to even be able to consider it. In case there’s any suspicion that this was ever thus, it wasn’t. I was the first member of my family to ever stay on at school for A-levels, never mind get a degree, so we are far from being the tabloid’s hated self-perpetuating middle classes.

The reality was that it was probably going to cost us an extra £1,000 a month on mortgage or school fees one way or the other, so with a bit of pressure from me (I’m definitely reverting to suburban type now I’m a mum) we plumped for moving house. That way we would *all* get the benefit of a nicer area, rather than Eleanor being the only kid from our street at that school/feeling embarrassed to bring her friends home.

So where on earth to live? When we first had Eleanor we had a core of friends who lived close by, including my brother Lee and sister-in-law Nic (with handy nephew only two months older than Eleanor) but this local gang was gradually reducing in size as people moved away/made plans to do so for similar reasons as us, so we embarked on researching a pretty wide potential area, with the following criteria:

1) Commuting distance to central London, and easy access to train station.
The plan was to have a train journey of 30 mins or less, and to be within 10 mins walk/drive of the station so that the door to door journey would be an hour-ish. This is dictated not by our desire to sleep in, but the fact that most nurseries/childminders open around 7.30am and close by 6.30pm at the latest, so the drop off/pick up rush was going to be a factor even with a relatively short commute.

2) Within the catchment area of good/excellent secondary school that we had a sporting chance of getting into.
There are clearly lots of decent schools out there, but judging by the over-subscription rates of most within the inner London boroughs, it seemed you would have to be practically next door in order to be guaranteed a place.

3) Within budget.
We are very lucky in that we had a lot of equity in our Catford house, so were able to stretch a lot further than many people at this stage in their lives, but in usual London style, it was looking like the going rate for a family sized house near a decent school was getting on for £750,000!!. This was *way* more than anyone without some independent means/help/a silly salary could ever expect, so we clearly had to find another solution.

Schools, commute and money- we were in competition with every other family with London commuter parents, and without an unlimited budget- No pressure then 🙂

Priority 1 – schools.
Since this is what had kicked off the whole search, this was the bit we had to get right. You can find out about your local schools in various ways (Dept for Children, schools & families, Oftsed) but if you don’t have a specific search area then something like the Good Schools Guide is the best bet. Predominantly about independent schools, it does cover good state schools also, and you can do a wider county-level search to give you a general idea of where to look. £35 for a year’s access, but I signed up for a month online at £9.99. Bargain.

I searched across all London boroughs, plus the Home Counties, for good secondary schools. There were about 17, as I remember, so then began the process of checking each of these for catchment area, and how over-subscribed they were. Some were just pointless even looking at – The Tiffin School in Kingston, for instance (10:1 applications to places ratio).

While I was at it, I made a point of checking that the nearest primary schools were also good or excellent, and the shortlist began to take shape.

This I then cross referenced with house prices (aaargh). The shortlist got ever smaller.. Being near to a decent school obviously impacts house prices (estimates are from 5 to 15% of the value, depending on the area), and since we were looking for a house to live in for the next 20 years (otherwise why bother with the secondary school yet?) we were aiming for a nice big pad. 4 bed detached, of preference – greedy yes, but we thought we may as well go all out as we wanted to stay put – this was to be our forever house – or as near as possible to it.

Where I grew up (in a relatively nice bit of Leeds) I had a lot of the same friends throughout my school career, and a couple of them are very close friends still, so I was hoping for a house that would see us through Eleanor’s entire school years and possibly beyond. I’ve also come to appreciate the benefits of nice neighbours who say hello and feed your cat when you’re away on holiday.

So, the dwindling shortlist of where we could afford was further cross checked for train times, and after all of this, there remained two possibilities at the opposite sides of London- Orpington in Kent (south east) and Watford, Hertfordshire (north west).

Both have lots in common in terms of being commuter towns and close to the M25, and the thing that probably kept them both vaguely within financial reach was the fact that the schools involved were partially selective – which means that there wasn’t a total guarantee of your child getting in no matter how rich you were.

Orpington was much closer to where we lived, being a few miles further south east of London- and is coincidentally where Jules grew up, but his family no longer lived anywhere close, and in fact were now clustered around Cheltenham, around 100 miles west.

Add to this the fact that my extended family were still in Leeds (north, for anyone who didn’t already know that); my dad by now lived in Chesham, Buckinghamshire (north west, 20 mins from Watford) and Lee was planning to move away from south east London as soon as finances allowed, the decision became a lot easier.

So Watford it was. It took all sorts of further effort to choose and find the best area, find the house and then compete to get our offer accepted (7 offers in one day, of which at least 2 were over the asking price – what housing bust?) but we did it, we’re in, and it’s everything we hoped for.

I just hope Eleanor doesn’t spend her teenage years saying it’s boring and she wishes she lived somewhere more urban and cool. 😉

Travel with tots – how to enjoy it!

July 8, 2010 1 comment
Eleanor sunning herself in Cape Town 2008

Eleanor sunning herself in Cape Town Nov 2008, aged 6 months

One of the major pastimes me and Jules didn’t want to miss out on by having children was being able to go on decent holidays abroad, and before Eleanor was two we managed to take her to South Africa twice, Antigua once and several times to southern France to visit her grandparents. As in all things baby, there were tribulations & logistical hurdles to get over along the way, but rest assured that not only is it possible, but it can also be great fun and a relaxing (yes, I really did say that) experience, as long as you bear a few things in mind – and most importantly of all, plan ahead!

Passports
Ready for our first visit to France to see my mum, we dutifully sent off for Eleanor’s first passport when she was a month old.

The process of getting a passport photo in the first place at first seemed like a bit of a hurdle – I had visions of us cramming into a photo booth (leaving the pushchair outside to get stolen), me having to squat on the floor and hold her up at arms length as I stayed out of sight; or pay a fortune to the many predatory photo studios that stalk you from the minute that you procreate. Happily I found a website on which you could upload a digital photo of your baby, and they would crop and edit it to fit the strict criteria for acceptable passport photos (which include such near impossibilities for a tiny one as facing straight on, no smiling, no other people, plain background, no accompanying toys etc) and send you a set of four within two days in the post. This was a huge find, and made us marginally less daunted about the whole process.

On the subject of kids passports – they’re valid at first for 5 years, and anyone who’s seen at close hand how much a baby changes between birth and the age of 2, never mind 5, can’t fail to find this slightly ridiculous. Pity the customs workers (I never thought I’d be in a position to say that) who having let through an entirely different child has to try to describe the other wailing bundle that got smuggled out in front of them
Even this is arguably better than the situation when I was a kid, with mine and my brother’s names just written in our parents’ passports and not needing any ID of our own at all.

Interestingly, my mum remembers her mum, my uncle Colin and herself being refused entry to a cross channel ferry once whilst trying to go on a family holiday in the 50s, because at this point even the wife didn’t have to have her own passport – and was just another piece of chattel on the list on her husbands’ identification. My grandad hadn’t come on this holiday, and while my nan had brought his passport with them, it wasn’t valid for them unless the passport holder was there, so they had to travel back from Dover all the way home to Leeds, to add further to the disappointment, and embarrassment.

What to take.
Not as much as you think! Unless you’re going to outer Mongolia, believe it or not, most places sell nappies, jars of baby food and formula. Usually it’s exactly the same brand you buy at home, and often cheaper – and it won’t kill you (or your baby) if they have to compromise a little bit. Take enough for max 3 days, and go shopping on your 2nd day and stock up for the rest of the hols.

Driving to the airports and checking in
Whatever you do, don’t get your kids in the car until everything else is packed. If it’s still possible to leave them in a bouncer chair/cot/playpen while you pack the car & get everything ready, then do. If not, then get them dressed and let them play in their room/run around and get rid of some energy before they’re strapped in. Travelling inevitably involves too much sitting around in one place, and I don’t know any mobile kid who doesn’t prefer moving around when it’s possible.
On long haul journeys where we know we’ll have tons of luggage we’ve often paid extra for the valet parking service which is an absolute godsend. You drive to the drop off point, a nice chap in a waistcoat helps you unload onto a trolley and then drives your car off to be parked. Much nicer than trailing through a long stay car park 10 miles from the airport whilst paranoid about getting to the flight on time. It’s even better on the way home from an early morning long haul landing – a nice purring warm car to meet you, and no 6am stumble to find the car and defrost yourself and the windows with a crying baby in the back, and the beginning of post-holiday blues.

Security and baby food/milk
The last few years of added restrictions taking liquids on planes have caused endless issues for those with babies, but again, there is a knack.
Option 1: check whether the airport has a Boots after check in. Ring them and reserve a few cartons of ready made milk and jars of baby food, pick them up after check in and hey presto – all sorted for the flight.
Option 2: boil & cool water for formula, and put more than you need in each bottle sealing each tightly afterwards to keep sterile. Do enough bottles for your entire journey (including an extra one just in case of delays before you get on board/leave the airport). Take the milk powder in pre-measured portions with you so you can mix it in at a moment’s notice, and take a straw so that you can taste the water in each bottle to show customs that it’s not liquid explosive (or whatever they think it might be. The straw is important so that your saliva doesn’t touch the water and stop it being sterile, and the extra water in each bottle is important so that there’s the right amount left for your pre-measured milk powder when you need to mix it. Better to pour a little water away than not have enough – too much milk powder:water ratio can make your little one ill.

On the plane
Long haul flights are surprisingly much easier than short haul, as long as you’ve booked a bassinet. That way you get the bulkhead seats, and with luck your baby will sleep for the majority of the journey. Have everything they may need handy – toys, milk, snacks, and a dummy for take off and landing – really important as the pressure can hurt their ears and a dummy helps to equalise the pressure as it changes.
Remember you will need to keep the baby on your lap during take-off and landing, so plan for a bit of disruption & them getting bored sitting still – if they’re mobile let them sit/play with toys on the floor until the very last moment, and if tiny a sling can do wonders.

If you’re doing a night flight get them changed into the PJs and preferably a travel sleeping bag (genius inventions – with holes for a 5 point harness – I’ve got this one). If possible do it after check in & before getting on the plane, so they’re snug & you can get them in the bassinet & off to sleep with the minimum of fuss once you’ve taken off.

The car seat/pushchair/travel cot dilemma
Most airlines let you take a pushchair (normally to the steps of the plane, which is brilliant), a travel cot and a car seat (in the hold) for free on top of your baggage allowance. For tiny tots you can get pop up travel cots which are brilliant and take up barely any room/weight in the car/suitcase/trolley.

Think hard about the car seat. If you’re struggling with a lot of luggage it can be a pain, but if you have *any* doubts about the availability or safety of car seats in your destination country, take it with you. Many countries have lower safety standards than the UK and this is a risk not worth taking. *Do* practise putting it in/taking it out of the car a few times so you’re not cursing yourself and the whole world whilst figuring out how to do it for the first time in a year after a red eye flight. Not fun, I promise.

We figured out all of the above through trial and error, with a bit of advice from other people – and by the return from the 2nd of the 10 or so trips we’ve done with her we were like old hands. Eleanor slept from practically the moment she got on the flight till we landed, and we even got to see a film or two, and have a Bloody Mary to start the holiday feeling.

Enjoy, and let me know of any other tips you find!

I propose a medal for..

July 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Whoever decided to put a nursery in the train station at Watford Junction.
After moving to Watford from south London (about which more later) I had a few days panic of figuring out the childcare/commuting question.

The formulas most working mums have to juggle are:

  • long working hours + long commute ≠ most nurseries closing at 6.30pm at the latest
  • availability of childcare near home or availability of childcare near work = quandary of being near enough to get there in emergency, or having a day off and having to commute anyway
  • getting child to nursery (in car or pushchair) + expensive/no parking at station = add (journey home to pick up car + to nursery to pick up child + commute)  deduct this from 6.30pm to see what time you have to leave work (hoping for amenable boss/flexible working times/reliable train operator)

Once you bear in mind train times, not getting out of long meetings on time and the added issue of if your child is ill/the nursery is closed for training for the odd day, then you have a jigsaw with ill fitting pieces and the thing that has to give is your stress levels, and often, sadly, your career.

My saving grace currently is Buffer Bear nursery in the (ample) car park at Watford Junction train station. Mornings involve a 7.30 departure, a 5 minute drive, followed by dropping Eleanor at nursery – slip through the (genius) swipe card door to the platform to catch the 7.44 to Euston (20 minutes – more genius) and be easily be at work before 8.45am. Hometime is the other way around – I leave work at 5.30pm on the dot, catch the 5.51 from Euston and arrive at WFJ at 6.11. There is a swipe card door from the platform (repeated as it’s too good to miss the first time around) to the nursery, where I can pick Eleanor up at around 6.15, and be home for 6.30pm. Milk and a biscuit, some cuddle and playtime before bed and calm is resumed, wine in hand, by 7.30.

Medals all round.